Kids Need to Know How to “Grapple”: Teaching Kids to Read Texts that are Too Hard and Too Long

This is how reading feels to many of my students. Maybe rock climbing and teaching reading aren’t so different.

When I first read the word “grapple” in the title of Elfrieda H. Hiebert’s (2013)article, “For the CCSS Assessments and Beyond: Develop Your Students’ Stamina for Grappling with Complex Texts,” my mind flashed to an image of a sweaty rock climber grappling up a steep rock wall.

This is how reading feels to many of my students. It is how it feels to me when I try reading in Spanish or a text in antiquated English. As I gazed at the scabs on my knuckles–remnants of my recent venture into the local rock climbing gym—I thought that maybe rock climbing and teaching reading aren’t so different. Sometimes kids need to be able to grapple up a steep wall of a text that is simply too hard for them. What am I doing to help kids get to the point where they can approach the level of text found on the upcoming PARCC test and make meaning of it on their own?

Much of my professional focus over the past few years has been on guided reading–reading with the teacher, making meaning with the teacher, and doing so with a text on a student’s own level. “For the CCSS Assessments and Beyond” reminds us that while guided reading is vital, students must be taught coping strategies to read texts that are well-beyond their independent and even instructional level. The article assures us that the complexity of the texts that will be found on exams like the PARCC are both more and less complex than the average core text in an ELA or Social Studies classroom. (While the Lexile level of assessment texts was found to be slightly higher, the number of words, and the number of rare words, was found to be slightly lower than core instructional texts.) Students who are at a high-reading level should be ok with working with these texts. However, students who are two or three grade-levels behind in reading normally do not get meaning from core texts on their own. What are we going to do to get them there? At this point, I have more questions than answers, but one thing is for sure: I am not blowing through textbook read alouds and core text read alouds in order to get to guided reading faster. My students need to sometimes read core texts on their own, build stamina with harder texts, make meaning of it one their own, before I work with them. Otherwise, I am not preparing them for the CCSS and the PARCC.

Hiebert gives five guidelines for how to do this. She does not elaborate on them much, but the basic premise is to give the students a reading purpose, pre-teach vocabulary, chunk the reading, have students re-read critical parts of the text to get evidence for their interpretations, teach comprehension strategies for tackling unknown words and phrases. Increase the length of the chunks throughout the year. Seems pretty standard. I was relieved to read these things because they are strategies I have been using, and I feel comfortable putting more emphasis on them in the future with my core texts.

The only guideline I was a bit unsure of was number four: “Hold explicit conversations with students about the role of challenge in their learning.” The article says to make students aware of “the pace at which new potentially unknown words are included…The patterns of rare vocabulary in text needs to be made visible to the students.” Is this a pep talk about why struggling through complex texts builds brain muscles or is this a review of using context clues to infer the meaning of unknown words? I imagine both.

What is clear, is that I need to make students aware of their own abilities and strategies to get through long texts that are too hard for them. I’d like to have more metacognition happening in my classroom. I see this happening in changing our approach to reading the social studies text book and also with our core novels and core texts in ELA. I see it happening in homogeneously-leveled book clubs: I will review the comprehension strategies needed to get through the rigorous texts first, I will provide different levels of scaffolding to the different groups, I will work most closely with the lowest groups, but most importantly, I will give students time to grapple with these difficult core texts on their own. Something I have been lacking, is the metacognitive component of student reflection on the strategies they used in their reading. This is something I’d like to explicitly model to my students and have them start journaling about and sharing it with their classmates in future lessons.

I don’t want my struggling readers to feel hopeless when presented with complex texts—I want them to feel empowered that even if they are faced with a text vastly above their reading level, they can know that they have strategies to employ to help get meaning from the text. They have the power to get through it, just like a rock climber who, through practice and determination, develops the skills and strength to grapple up a rock wall.

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