As everyday readers, we seek several texts for information on the same topic. When a situation breaks out in the world, we may “catch it” on TV, initially. Then, we read more in the newspaper (print or online versions) the next morning. We listen to commentaries on the radio on the way to work, see updates under “top stories” on the internet, and purchase a magazine with a special photo essay and feature article. And, in between all of that, we regularly discuss what we are learning and thinking with our “friends” on social media.
Several of the college and career-ready reading standards mirror these real-world reader behaviors. K-12 teachers are to provide students a range of reading experiences including a variety of text types, lengths, perspectives, versions, and complexities. The standards describe literacy skills that require students to make text-to-text connections, analyze and compare texts, and synthesize across multiple texts.
Similar expectations are key components on standardized reading assessments. It is common for students to read multiple passages on a common topic, issue, theme, or genre–and then respond to a prompt that pulls details and evidence to support their conclusions across the multiple texts.
So how do these reading expectations fit with classroom textbooks in math, science, social studies, health, and other content areas? Although those textbooks may be excellent resources, we need to rethink the notion of one textbook being the sole source of information for the entire curriculum.
Expert Gail Ivey, who is cited within many professional articles and resources on this topic, explains: “When teachers make the transition from textbook-only classrooms to multi-text classrooms, the focus of study becomes concepts rather than the content of one particular book. Students gain both a broad perspective and an in-depth sense of the subject matter from reading many texts on the same topic. I know of no one textbook that contains enough information to help a student become even mildly expert on any topic.”
Therefore, to teach our students to read widely on the key concepts and topics within our curriculum, we should move toward text sets.
Build text sets
Text sets are collections of texts that focus on one concept or topic. A text set would typically include a variety of:
- Text types (e.g., books, charts, maps, informational pamphlets, poetry, songs, photographs, nonfiction books, primary source documents, videos, websites, etc.).
- Text complexities, ranging from simpler texts to those more challenging and complex.
- Text versions (e.g., video v. print versions, original novel v. graphic novel, American v. European versions, etc.) or perspectives (e.g., pro v. con, Democratic v. Republican, slave v. slave owner, etc.).
In a very basic sense, it’s like a book bin in the elementary Classroom Library. All the titles in that one container are related by topic, genre, or author. However, more than just an accidental grouping of texts, the teacher is strategic and intentional about when students will read which texts within the set.
Plan the order
Although there is no one way to present a text set, there should always be purpose behind what is to be read, why it is to be read, and when it is to be read within the unit. Beyond just selecting a variety of texts, teachers must also be strategic in arranging the order students read/view them.
Here are some suggestions:
- Select simpler texts that can provide a general understanding on an unfamiliar concept. Within a couple short and simple readings, students can easily acquire some basic vocabulary related to the topic and build their background knowledge. (NOTE: This is a great alternative to lecture. Rather than simply telling students information up front, they read to acquire it.)
- Select texts that pique interest, ignite questioning/predicting, and motivate students to want to know more about the topic. This may include revealing photos, playing short videos, or executing lab experiments. Such text variety also keeps the “reading” interesting.
- Reveal texts in an order that layers students’ knowledge. Start with simpler text to prepare them for more complex ones on the same concept. As their knowledge deepens, students are ready for more complex texts on the same subject matter.
- When students understand the general theme, issue, or topic, look to intersperse differing perspectives. This gives students a chance to hear from different sides, evaluate arguments, and synthesize ideas for themselves.
Invigorate your teaching
Here’s a fringe benefit–teaching with text sets can be rejuvenating for the teacher, too. A text set is never complete or finalized. You’re always looking for more texts, better texts, unique texts, etc. This approach keeps the material fresh and invigorating–even for the veteran teacher who may have been teaching the same content for numerous years.