by Toni Czekanski
Intermediate/Middle School Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative
Much has been written about how we can best support our students when working with them in small group instruction, or when we help them select texts for independent reading that they are able to read with understanding. But how do we know which texts are just right for a particular student or group of students? Which texts might present too many challenges, and which might offer just the right amount of support to allow for effective reading? Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell developed a system for leveling texts that places texts along a gradient based on the supports and challenges that they present. They take into consideration ten factors, which, if we begin to notice and understand them, will help us all look at texts differently.
The ten categories include genre and form, structure, content, themes and ideas, language and literary features, sentence complexity, vocabulary, words, illustrations, and book and print features (Fountas & Pinnell, 2011, The Continuum of Literacy Learning, p. 248 – 249). If we consider these ten factors, we will notice that they are included in all texts, regardless of the level of difficulty. Each factor increases with complexity as we move up the gradient. The more complex the factor, the greater the challenge it present to students.
Now let’s think for a moment or two about preparing to work with small groups of students in guided reading groups. Once you have assessed the students, and recognize their strengths and needs as readers, you select a text to use during your lesson. When reading the text you use the lens of these ten characteristics to decide where the challenges lie, and what about the book will support your readers. Is the theme one they can easily relate to, or will it require them to think beyond their prior experiences? Does the text contain a great deal of technical vocabulary, or perhaps figures of speech that students are not familiar with? Is the text organized in a way that will challenge them, or does it contain a structure that is familiar?
Once you decide what will be challenging, you can prepare a supportive text introduction that will take into consideration these challenges, and make this text accessible to the students through your supportive introduction. You might discuss the complexity of the theme, or use the vocabulary as you introduce the book. You might take them to a page with complex figurative language and ask them to think about its meaning before they begin to read. By giving them this support before reading, you are working to insure that they will understand the text as they read it. Your own developing understandings of the factors that relate to text difficulty will help you support your students.
Similarly, when you confer with students around their independent reading, you can take a moment to notice how the text works. By asking students whether there is any language that is causing them difficulty, or by having conversations around themes and ideas, you will assess whether this book is too challenging, or at just the right level for their independent reading. Text complexity goes beyond being able to decode the words. It is important that students are able to read their independent reading books with a good level of comprehension. We can talk with them, keeping the ten factors in mind, and help them make more productive text selections if they are choosing books that are too challenging.
Although our goal is for all students to be reading texts that are at their grade level, there are students who need extra support. The Common Core State Standards require us to use grade and age appropriate literature with our students, considering themes and ideas, precise meanings of words, figurative language, and details that support the meaning of the text. Understanding the complexities of texts ourselves can help us to support our students. When we read aloud texts that are at or above the students’ instructional level, we can keep these ten factors in mind and take the opportunity to model for students how to navigate the challenges presented in the text.
When the text presents a challenge, it is a signal to slow down and think about where the challenge lies. Is it around word-solving? What actions might we take to solve those words? Is it the introduction of a new feature of text, such as a text box? How do we read text boxes and why are they there? In considering the theme, how might we notice how the author introduces it through the details of the story? Do the illustrations support the text that is on the page, or do they go beyond the words in some way? By modeling for students how to problem solve when encountering difficult texts, we give them tools to engage with texts on their own.
Reading is a complex interaction between a reader and the text, and understanding how texts work can help us to help students recognize both the challenges and the supports that they encounter when reading. Readers interact with their texts in order to take meaning from them, and grow as people who understand their world. By working with a variety of texts across the day, and helping students to understand how texts work, we are supporting their development as readers who will grow and learn in many contexts.
Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2011). The Continuum of Literacy Learning: A Guide to Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.