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4 Strategies to Scaffold Complex But Essential Reading

When tackling complex or crucial topics, all students benefit from targeted scaffolding so they can understand and absorb what they’re reading.

April 23, 2021
High school students working together
SARINYAPINNGAM / iStock

Within any classroom, there’s generally a wide range of reading proficiency among students. While some may struggle with a text’s vocabulary or structure, others wrestle with making deeper connections or inferences because they lack the background knowledge to comprehend what they’re reading, writes Jeanne Wanzek for American Educator, a blog of the American Federation of Teachers.

All students, whether they have reading difficulties or not, need to absorb and process complex content that is often the foundation to future lessons. And they need to learn how to deconstruct challenging texts for themselves, pulling out and evaluating important information and concepts so they can talk and write about them.

“In truth, most students (even many who are strong readers) need instruction in successfully reading and understanding text in specific disciplines,” writes Wanzek, a professor in the department of special education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. The best way to do this, she says, is by “embedding disciplinary literacy within [classroom] content,” an approach she says should “help teachers address the diverse needs of students and stay focused on the important content they are teaching.” Of course, students with reading difficulties should receive appropriate reading interventions outside of the classroom as well, she notes.

Here are four instructional practices Wanzek recommends for helping all students read, understand, and engage with complex and foundational content.

1. Don’t Jump In—Slow Down and Set it Up

Before jumping into reading a challenging text in the classroom, it’s important to first provide meaningful context around the content, giving students a framework and enough background knowledge to be able to engage with it. Wanzek likens this phase to extending a “comprehension canopy” and suggests it should consist of three parts: “establishing a purpose, asking an overarching question, and priming initial background knowledge.”

A brief introduction should help build background knowledge, introduce key concepts, and get kids thinking about the material. A short video, for example, with a few guided questions as a follow-up, can accomplish this neatly. Your overarching question functions as a sort of guiding light through the unit—broad yet detailed enough to cover key ideas, its purpose is to help students “organize the critical information they learn” so that by the end of the unit, they’re able to answer it fully, Wanzek notes. An overarching question for a unit on the Gilded Age, for example, might be: “During the Gilded Age, how did the economic, political, and social landscape of America change?”

2. Teach Unfamiliar Words and Concepts

Scaffolding words, terms, and other background information before the reading actually begins ensures that students are not distracted or confused by crucial, but unknown, terms as they read. In a recent study, researchers discovered a “knowledge threshold” in reading comprehension: If students were unfamiliar with 59 percent of the terms in a text, their ability to understand what they were reading was “compromised.” And plenty of research supports the idea that when educators take the time to enrich kids’ background knowledge, they become better equipped to “retrieve more information about the topic from long-term memory, leaving more space in working memory for comprehension,” says Natalie Wexler, an education journalist and author of The Knowledge Gap. “They’re also better able to absorb and retain information, because knowledge—like Velcro—sticks best to other related knowledge.”

Wanzek recommends focusing on four or five essential words and providing targeted instruction that goes beyond simply giving definitions. “Students need repeated exposure to new words and opportunities to apply their word knowledge in order to retain the word or concept in their vocabulary,” she writes.

To introduce key words or concepts, start by providing a “student-friendly definition,” followed by some type of visual—perhaps a photo or illustration—to help students commit it to memory. Then, “present related words to help students make connections between the new word and the other known words,” Wanzek writes, and discuss examples of how the word might be used. For a bit more practice, pair kids together to discuss the word and how it’s used.

3. Guide Students Through Key Texts in Class

In order for all students, including those still developing as readers, to work through and understand what they’re reading, essential texts need to be read during class time so teachers can expertly guide and support students through the material, intermittently checking for understanding.

Students can read as a class along with the teacher, in pairs or small groups, or individually. It’s important that students are the ones doing the reading, Wanzek notes, not the teacher. “Students can only gain practice in reading and understanding content-area text independently if they are actually reading,” she writes.

To prevent students from skimming texts without absorbing and understanding, have them stop at several predetermined spots to answer a few quick questions either in writing or verbally.

4. Use Small Group Work Strategically

Following a close read in the classroom, small group work can be a good way to check for comprehension and deepen learning. Consider giving a short quiz containing about five multiple choice questions designed to “require students to integrate and evaluate key aspects of the curriculum,” Wanzek suggests. So, rather than asking “What is urbanization,” for example, she recommends formulating a more complex question such as: “Which of the following is not a cause of rapid urbanization during the Gilded Age?”

Ask students to first answer quiz questions individually—providing insight into each student’s level of understanding—and then again as a group. “Because the questions have been carefully crafted to draw on multiple aspects of the content, they are likely to elicit discussion of the content during the team work,” writes Wanzek. And “because each student has already taken the quiz, each is prepared to contribute to the discussion.”

During this group work, Wanzek recommends allowing students to use the texts and their notes. And use the opportunity to circulate among the groups, “facilitating their use of evidence and reasoning,” and identifying “misunderstandings or content gaps.”

Wrap up the unit with an exercise designed to get students to apply their content knowledge. When students engage in work that requires additional cognitive effort—retrieval practice, elaboration, concept mapping, or drawing, for example—it pushes them to process the material, consider it in new contexts, and generate new memory traces that help retention.

Start by giving each team a complex prompt such as: “You are an advisor to a U.S. president during the Gilded Age. As a group, make a recommendation regarding the top five priorities the administration should focus on. Support your thinking with at least two economic, two political, and two social reasons.” Provide graphic organizers to help students break the task into clear steps and ask them to prepare a written response that reflects their thinking and conclusion.

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  • 9-12 High School

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