How Text Sets Can Supplement and Enrich Traditional ELA Instructional Materials

7 min read

| By Char Shryock |

There’s a large base of reading research that supports the importance of providing students with regular opportunities to work with grade-appropriate text sets. This is different from the traditional canon-based approach that focuses on novel studies or spends large chunks of instructional time on a single story. Most anthologies are organized by genre and may include complete texts or excerpts of longer texts within each genre category. Shifting instructional planning away from a single-text, anthology-supported approach to teaching English language arts begins with a “both and” conversation focusing on the skills we want students to develop through their engagement with text. Of course, we want students to have common reading experiences. The traditional canon focuses on pieces of literature that have made a lasting impact across generations. This shared knowledge of characters, quotes, and settings that comes from reading books from the canon is one of the strands that holds a culture together. And we also want students to be able to build an academic vocabulary through multiple exposures to words in a variety of contexts. We want them to be able to write and speak, supporting their ideas and perspectives with evidence from a variety of texts. One outcome of this “both and” approach that uses the canon or anthology as a starting point for building a unit, then weaves in additional texts to build knowledge and vocabulary, is recognizing the flexibility that comes from utilizing text sets in the classroom over relying solely on a textbook. 

Getting Started

The first step in moving toward a text set-based core instructional model is to identify texts worth reading that will serve as the anchors to instructional units. These should meet the expectations for grade-level complexity and provide multiple entry points to address a set of learning standards, including reading, writing, and speaking standards. This anchor text may be a novel or informational book, or it could be authentic text from a vetted source, like a resource from Gale In Context. What’s important at this step is to focus on finding text worth reading that engages students. What does this text bring to the table for instruction? Does it provide essential background knowledge that will help students access the other texts they will be working with? Is it a window into a different point of view or culture? Is it a mirror to reflect back their own lived experiences? Will it provide a common experience that all students may not have had in their own life experience?

Identify the learning standards that will be the focus of the anchor text. Remember, with a text set–based approach, students are building skills that they will be able to apply to anything they read in their future.

Selecting Texts to Complete a Text Set

Using the collaborative folder tools in Gale In Context: For Educators is one way teacher teams can work together to build core instructional materials based on text sets once the anchor text has been selected. Additional texts may provide opportunities to compare and contrast characters, ideas, points of view, or themes. These additional texts can promote inquiry and research as students work to apply their skills and develop questioning strategies. Text sets provide opportunities for teachers to craft text-dependent questions that require students to go back into the text to find evidence as part of analysis or to justify their answers.

Identify the purpose the additional texts will serve and create sets of text-dependent questions that students will use when working across multiple texts.

Paying Attention to Complexity

All the texts in a text set do not have to have the same complexity level. Text complexity is based on vocabulary demand, text structures, author’s purpose, and the knowledge demands of the text. It’s important that the majority of reading that students are doing as a whole class is at grade-level complexity. When thinking about additional texts to include in each unit, you may choose lower-complexity texts that have a high level of academic or content words in context, with explicit meanings. Or text that backfills missing background knowledge for students who may not have expertise or experience with the focus of the anchor text. You can also pull in text that will stretch student perspective or critical thinking as they work to make connections between the additional text and the anchor text. Unlike an anthology or textbook, which may or may not suggest scaffolds or differentiation strategies for the story or content, teachers can pull materials into a text set that meet the needs of all their learners, while making sure everyone is working to grow the knowledge and skills that are embedded in the instructional unit. Gale’s tools, like the Lexile-level search, the annotation and highlighting tools, or text-to-speech functionality, can be used alongside the pieces of a text set to support all students.

Identify the entry points for all students. What are their unique learning needs? How can the additional texts in a text set be used to help all students meet grade-level expectations?

Meeting Students Where They Are

A textbook or anthology is a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching English language arts. It’s a lift for teachers to find ways to engage students with a text that may or may not have relevance to them or one that assumes the students have had common life or cultural experiences in order to relate to the text. Imagine reading an excerpt from The Things They Carried without having any prior knowledge of the Vietnam War. Or Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening if you are from a place where you have never seen snow or a frozen lake or know vocabulary like “harness.” Imagine instead reading a text set to build knowledge and expertise and then working with that anchor text. Asking questions of the text, then finding additional texts to answer those questions. Writing informational or argumentative pieces by pulling details or evidence from multiple texts to support your ideas. That’s what making the shift to text-set-based instruction can bring to classrooms.

Identify opportunities for students to expand their knowledge and be open to the perspectives of others. How can you introduce students to new voices and places? How can you help them make connections between their lives and the larger world beyond?

Now What?

This is a big shift. The best way to approach it is to start small. Look closely at your learning standards. Where do your current instructional materials seem to be missing or falling short? Work with a team to begin to build a text set to replace an existing unit, centering around those standards and identifying an anchor text and supporting texts for students to engage with. It’s worth the time to do this work upfront. Once it’s done, you can begin another unit. You may find that you are as engaged in the work as your students will be!

About the Author

Char Shryock is an education leadership consultant with 37 years of experience as a superintendent, director of curriculum, tech integration specialist, and classroom teacher. She is an advocate for literacy for all, and works to promote the consistent use of high-quality texts to build knowledge and vocabulary across all grade levels and subject areas. A state and national level speaker, she also regularly works with districts to provide support on a broad range of topics including STEM, assessment literacy, instructional design, and leadership development.

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