Friday / July 19

How to Select Texts That Drive Student Learning

Summer is a great time to explore new books and other texts we may want to share with children and dream up possibilities for the year ahead. We may find ourselves one summer afternoon chatting with our local librarian about new releases, checking out displays in an independent bookstore while on vacation, or digging into our TBR piles for something to take to the beach. As we explore fantastic new titles, we may consider revising a text set we’ve used for a few years that needs refreshing. Or perhaps we might consider swapping some of the texts from our core program that didn’t engage our students for better ones that we could use to teach the same content or skills. Maybe we want to be on the lookout for rich texts to bring more literacy learning into our science, social studies, or math lessons. Perhaps we want to feature more poetry or incorporate scripts in new ways. Whatever your reasons, here are a few considerations.

How can we expand the notion of “text”?

Often when we select texts for lessons, we automatically think about chapter books, articles, science or social studies texts, picture books, decodable texts (for phonics), and maybe we squeeze in some poetry. But song lyrics, letters, speeches, legal decisions (for the upper grades), graphic novels, etc. also present opportunities to expand students’ reading skills and strategies as they tackle many different types of text. And of course, we could think beyond the written word to include video, audio, podcasts, political cartoons, and pictograms as these present different ways of consuming information and require different skills and strategies.

How do we select texts?

There are many considerations when selecting a text including genre, complexity, length, text type, and topic. Texts should be inclusive, relevant to students’ lives, identify affirming, and culturally responsive. Sometimes we will select the text. Other times we will use texts included in our curriculum or core program. And of course, the texts we select will vary by lesson type. But no matter what type of lesson I’m teaching, here are three lenses I consider, in addition to the criteria mentioned above.
Aligns to purpose: First I consider if the text addresses the learning objectives. If I’m teaching /sh/ to a group of first graders, the text I choose for the lesson will need to have plenty of opportunities to encounter different spellings of /sh/. However, if it’s the first time I’m introducing the digraph, then I may select a text allows readers to encounter a limited number of spellings. If my goal is to support skills for reading accuracy in a focus lesson, I may choose an excerpt of a text students are already familiar with. During a recent close-reading lesson in a fifth-grade science class, I selected a complex article about mixtures and solutions to supplement the lab work the students had recently conducted. I wanted to support the students as they learned how to linger on and study visual features like photographs and charts and to integrate information from these features with the main text in the article.
Builds knowledge and vocabulary: There is such limited time to teach everything we need to cover that the texts we select should address multiple learning goals. So, in addition to the literacy goals of a reading lesson, I also make sure that any text I select for instruction presents opportunities for vocabulary development and knowledge acquisition. For example, during a reader’s theater lesson, my primary goal may be improving fluency. And yet as they read through the script the first time, I’ll pause to make sure they understand any Tier 2 vocabulary words they encounter.
Engages students:Every teacher knows that when students are actively engaged in the lesson, they are more likely to achieve learning objectives. When I select texts, either those I choose on my own or those provided by a curriculum or program, I always think about how the text will capture their attention, align to what they already know to build new knowledge, and when and how I can have students actively participate in engaging with the text. Recently I taught a fifth-grade science class where students had been learning about the scientific method. I selected Darwin’s Super Pooping Worm Spectacular to reinforce student’s understanding of the scientific method knowing that they would connect with this humorous, fascinating story.

How do we build a conceptually coherent text set?

Research shows that grouping different types of texts that explore a similar topic or are related conceptually helps students build and better retain knowledge, acquire new vocabulary, and make connections. So, I’m always looking for new texts that connect to others I already love to teach with. Coherent text sets should include a variety of text types, a range of complexity, and different formats. For instance, a conceptually coherent text set about frogs might include an article from a science magazine, a video from a nature channel, a picture book about different types of frogs, an audio recording of the sounds frogs make, and a poem describing frogs leaping. With this text set, I might use a variety of lesson types to teach the different texts, selecting the type most appropriate for the literacy and content goals.
A final note, as we move throughout the year, we can make sure to highlight a variety of genres, include texts of different lengths, consider multimodal possibilities, showcase different types of texts, and feature different levels of complexity.
Read more about text selection, lesson types, and more in my new book, Teaching Reading Across the Day. All the lessons I highlighted in this post are featured in the book, many with a video of me teaching the lesson in a real classroom.
Written by

Jennifer Serravallo is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning educator, literacy consultant, frequent invited speaker at state and national conferences, and former member of the Parents Magazine editorial board. Jen is best known for creating books and resources rooted in research that help make responsive, strategic, differentiated literacy instruction possible for all educators. Jen’s books are used world-wide, and several have been translated into French, Spanish, Chinese, and Italian. In 2023, Jen launched her podcast To the Classroom: Conversations with Researchers and Educators.

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