Informational Texts and Struggling Students
Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.
(Lucius Annaeus Seneca).
Schools have long made adjustments for students with educational disabilities and English language learners, with the goal of making educational tasks and activities more manageable for these unique learners. Accommodations have reduced the academic stress of many students and increased their opportunities to access the general curriculum. However, access to the general curriculum has not always translated into progress within the general curriculum. While well-intended, the practice of avoiding the difficulties presented by complex informational texts can prevent students from accessing the academic language and content that they must engage with in order to strengthen their literacy skills. The emphasis on informational text in the Common Core State Standards brings a submerged dilemma to the surface: How can schools promote the success and self-confidence of struggling learners while engaging them in meaningful literacy activities that will accelerate their abilities to engage with and think critically about informational texts at increasingly levels of difficulty?
Teaching at the frustration level is not the answer, but “there is only one way to acquire the language of literacy, and that is through literacy itself” (Filmore and Filmore, 2012, p. 65). This dilemma can be resolved if teachers conceptualize informational text instruction as a balancing scale. A synthesis of the work of Calkins, Ehrenworth & Lehman (2012) and Fisher, Frey & Lapp (2012) indicates that when a student has less direct instructional supports, the closer the informational text must be to the student’s ‘just right’ level and the longer assigned passages can be. Conversely, as informational text levels rise above the student’s independent reading level, more instructional strategies are necessary for the student to successfully access and learn from the informational text. Very challenging passages should be shorter and involve a high level of simultaneous teacher-student engagement. In other words, when informational text becomes more complex and less familiar in terms of academic language, the level of difficulty must be counterbalanced by targeted instructional strategies that scaffold the student to increased understanding and reinforce skills that will help students grapple effectively with increasingly complex informational texts. There is a place for both types of activities and everything in between these two ends of the instructional spectrum. Balance is the key to effective informational literacy instruction for all students, especially those with disabilities and English language learners.
Theoretically this makes sense, but what must teachers learn and do in order for all students to meaningfully engage with informational texts across disciplines at increasing levels of complexity? Simply assigning the same grade or course level reading to all students may have the superficial appearance of rigor, but it will result in frustration and poor learning outcomes for many students. All educators including elementary teachers, literacy instructors, content area teachers and specialists must have some common skills and understanding that will equip them to effectively promote student growth as it pertains to informational text. Systemic change of this magnitude, however, requires prioritization. Two major entry points for widespread reforms emerge as having immense potential to substantially improve the performance of all students, including those who struggle with informational reading: appropriately matching texts to readers and strategies to model and promote close reading.
All educators must understand how to appropriately match texts to readers within the context of informational reading. Keeping the mental image of a balancing scale in mind, and integrating the quantitative and qualitative attributes of both the text and the learner, teachers can select some readings that provide ample opportunity to independently boost their students’ fluency and background knowledge and others that offer the chance to stretch their students’ literacy skills to levels far beyond what they are capable of doing on their own. Students need to read at their independent levels, but in order to gain adequate exposure to complex informational texts, students with disabilities and English language learners must also regularly engage with passages that are very difficult for them. While this may conjure up images of frustration and failure, it is a tremendous and necessary learning experience for students. The caveat: in order for teachers to effectively promote student growth through the use of information text at (what would previously have been called) the frustration level, they must be equipped to implement a range of instructional strategies to guide students through close reading of informational texts.
There are many facets of literacy that can be improved to accelerate the performance of all students. However, as a starting point, systemic reform related to literacy instruction in the context of informational text can address the widespread understanding and implementation of effective approaches to matching readers with texts, and on ensuring that all teachers have the skills and knowledge to apply strategies that will effectively engage students in close reading of challenging informational texts. As teachers gain and practice these skills, they will be increasingly able to provide the balanced range of literacy activities and supports that struggling students need. With the right types of texts and instructional supports, students with educational disabilities and English language learners can not only access the general curriculum, but also thrive within it without risk to their own self-esteem or confidence. Rather than avoiding the challenges of complex informational texts, all students can successfully engage in difficulties that strengthen their minds give them the skills they will need to independently ‘read to learn’ in their academic futures.
Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, C. (2012). Pathways to the common core: Accelerating achievement. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Fillmore, L.W., & Fillmore, C.J. (2012). What does text complexity mean for English language learners and language minority students? Understanding Language: Language, Literacy and Learning in the Content Areas: Commissioned papers on language and literacy issues in the common ore state standards and next generation science standards, 64-74. Stanford University.
Fisher, F., Frey, N. & Lapp, D. (2012). Text complexity: Raising rigor in reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.