Teaching students an article a day seems like a good idea: students get enough variety to keep them interested in reading, they can stay on top of the latest news, and they practice skills that will be useful to them on standardized tests. The learning science, however, suggests that reading random, disconnected articles fails to build lasting knowledge because students are not getting the opportunity to create connections between ideas, revisit their previous learning, and see how a concept transfers to new scenarios. Students may be getting some skills practice, but they are failing to achieve the goal of reading nonfiction texts as defined by the Common Core Standards: to build knowledge and access increasingly complex texts.
Getting beyond this fragmented approach requires sequencing and grouping texts so that students progressively build their knowledge on a topic. This approach is heavily encouraged by education thought leaders like Achieve the Core (a nonprofit group dedicated to helping teachers implement college- and career-ready standards) and the Fordham Institute, which recently released a review of various text set resources. Many of the resources surveyed by the Fordham Institute failed to meet the criteria of having a learning sequence, asking questions that connected the texts, and being user-friendly to teachers.
If you’re looking for high-quality sequenced text sets, you can either use existing ones from a trusted source or create your own. If you choose the DIY route, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Figure out your instructional goal
Text sets are generally used for one of two purposes: building depth of understanding of a particular concept or scaffolding knowledge to access more rigorous texts. For instance, if a science teacher is interested in getting students to deeply understand cell structure, she might begin with a textbook article about common parts of the cell, do a hands-on activity to help students investigate the concepts in action, and finish with an article that applies knowledge of cell structure to recent advances in pharmaceutical research. At the end of their reading, students will have an in-depth understanding of how cell structure works. This approach is conducive for science and other subjects where students are expected to master particular concepts. It enables students to move beyond the general knowledge presented in a textbook and attain deeper understanding of particular concepts.
Scaffolding knowledge to access more rigorous texts assumes that the instructional goal is to have students read something that requires a considerable amount of content knowledge, such as a complex novel or a primary source document. Before students can make sense of these readings, they need to understand the context in which the texts are situated and the concepts they refer to. For example, before students are able to read and comprehend Night, they need to have a basic understanding of the Holocaust. Creating a text set that furthers students’ understanding of Nazi propaganda, World War II, and dehumanization will give them the intellectual toolkit to make sense of the novel.
“[T]eachers are often encouraged to teach nonfiction in isolation. In English or reading classes, that might mean a separate, stand-alone unit on nonfiction in which students read a series of articles, one after the other, studying their text features and structural elements. [...] The result is a situation where absorption rate is likely to be lowest—engagement too, possibly.”
Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, & Erica Woolway, Reading Reconsidered
2. Figure out the progression of knowledge and select texts that fill content gaps
If your goal is to build depth of understanding, you will need to figure out how to take students from a general overview of a topic to a more precise analysis of particular concepts. For instance, let’s say you are looking to help students understand the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact. You will likely need to start with some introduction to the time period, like a textbook article, that helps them situate this historical event. From then, you might have students analyze the Mayflower Compact so that they understand the social contract into which the Pilgrims entered. Lastly, students could look at a firsthand account of life in Plymouth colony from Edward Winslow. The progression would move students from a broad understanding of the time period to an analysis of a primary source document, thereby giving them a deep understanding of the time period.
If your goal is to help students access more rigorous texts, consider the knowledge gaps that students will need to fill. For example, let’s assume you want students to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Before students can make sense of this document, they need to understand the social and legal context in which Martin Luther King Jr. was writing and the specific group that he was responding to. A natural sequence here would be to start with a text like Birmingham’s Racial Segregation Ordinances to present the legal framework of the Civil Rights Era. To help students understand the attitudes and the specific group that Martin Luther King Jr. was reacting to, students can then read the Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen. Once students encounter Martin King Jr’s document in the end, they will be equipped with the knowledge to understand the viewpoints that Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing.
3. Create questions that enable students to make connections between the texts
Once you have the sequence of texts mapped out, create questions that encourage students to see how the texts related to each other. This is often a missing step with text sets you find on the web; the reason is that content providers want to avoid curating questions solely for the text set and prefer to group individual texts loosely by theme. Unfortunately, this last step is necessary for students to reactivate what they’ve learned in one text and transfer it to another text.
"Every time we recall information from long-term storage into working memory, we relearn it. Therefore, teachers should use classroom strategies that encourage students to recall previously learned information regularly so they will relearn it."
David Sousa, How the Brain Learns
For example, if you are building students’ understanding of how art impacts social movements, you might present students with a series of articles about individual artists’ socially conscious art. You might then ask students to compare and contrast two artists’ challenges to social perceptions as they are described in two separate texts. As an another example, if students are reading a series of texts that respond to the symbolism of Confederate monuments, your final question could ask them to consolidate their understanding of the texts they’ve read and reflect on how symbols and memories of the past shape our present experiences.
Once you understand the reasoning behind sequenced text sets, creating your own becomes a manageable endeavor. As students become more familiar with text sets, they may even select their own text as the final reading and create questions that connect their selection to what they’ve already learned. It’s a way for them to reflect on the knowledge they’ve acquired and demonstrate their ability to network texts in the same way that expert readers do.
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- Primary Sources: How to Integrate Disciplinary Literacy into Social Studies
Lemov, Doug, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. Reading reconsidered: a practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand, 2016.
Sousa, David A. How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2017.