Instructional Leadership in Action

How to Analyze Complex Texts For Your Teaching - Step by Step

by Joanna Michelson on May 21, 2015


At a recent high school English department professional development session in our partner district in Avoyelles, La. I observed teachers reading Elie Wiesel's Nobel lecture, "Hope, Despair, and Memory", a text that is included in the ninth grade curriculum. It is a powerful text on the importance of memory to counter hatred and build peace. It explores abstract concepts like the task of remembering horrific, traumatic events while stepping into the future with optimism. The teachers were clearly touched by the message and wanted their students to read it. But they wondered: could the students handle such a challenging text?

As curriculum packages and units of study aligned with the Common Core State Standards become more wide-spread, educators across the country face this challenge everyday. The standards push us to raise the rigor of texts while decreasing the amount of scaffolding, and educators are wondering how to best support students who read below grade level.

Before we walk through the process we went through with the teachers in Avoyelles, let's familiarize ourselves with the Common Core anchor standard that addresses text complexity (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10):

Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Grade level-specific standards specify that by the end of each year, students will read and comprehend texts at the high end of the text complexity band for that grade level or span. For instance, the teachers in Avoyelles were working with ninth grade texts, so they were addressing this standard ( CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.10):

By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literacy nonfiction in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

As part of a content area and leadership professional development partnership, we engaged the teachers in Avoyelles in a process that leaders, teachers, and coaches anywhere can use to analyze complex texts and think through how to support students.

Of course there is no silver bullet that will help all students immediately comprehend complex texts, and there is no single way to prepare teachers to support students with text. We find this collaborative text analysis process included below helpful because it allows teachers to work together to problem solve, to consider the specific demands of a particular text and the needs of their students. This is a process we have adapted and developed over time through our work with districts and our own professional reading.

Read the text carefully and consider the big ideas that you want students to understand and the text's purpose.

The teachers in Avoyelles talked about the text as a whole, what resonated for them, and, ultimately, what Wiesel was trying to say. The teachers grappled with the text's meaning for a solid thirty minutes, a sign that this text was truly complex and also meaningful beyond a school assignment or task.

Teachers in Avoyelles shared their ideas about how to analyze the complex Nobel lecture and developed strategies for supporting students.

In the end, they decided that students should ultimately understand Wiesel's argument that to survive and find meaning, humans must strike a balance between remembering the pain of the past and maintaining hope for a better future. They also decided that the students should understand Wiesel's caution that people are forgetting the memory of the Holocaust and that the world is again on the brink of war and full of injustice.

Analyze what you did as a reader to understand the text and navigate the challenges.

The teachers then discussed how they themselves made sense of the text. They were surprised to see that they had taken different approaches. One teacher read the whole text first without making a single note, and then went back and broke the piece into sections based on the structure and took notes on the key ideas in those sections. She then starred and underlined parts that seemed most closely tied to the overall purpose.

Another teacher noted all the literary devices as she read, identifying what each device was, what it meant, and how it contributed to the overall meaning. This teacher reread sentences and paragraphs as she proceeded through the text, particularly when there was a shift in the structure.

Analyze what makes that text complex using the Common Core model of text complexity (qualitative dimensions: clarity of purpose, structure, knowledge demands, language)

Once they had determined the key ideas in the text, the teachers spent time analyzing the text using the Common Core model of text complexity. The Common Core outlines several considerations when analyzing the complexity of a text (what the reader knows; what task we are asking students to perform with it; the quantitative measure of its complexity, like Lexile; and the qualitative demands).

We focused our conversation first on the qualitative demands. The group determined the following:

  • Clarity of purpose: The text is highly demanding in this area because Wiesel does not state his purpose upfront. It is woven implicitly throughout the text, and then one part of the purpose is stated explicitly at the end.
  • Structure: The text is highly demanding structurally because it employs multiple modes in one piece. It is a speech that Wiesel delivered, so it is meant to be read aloud. The piece begins with a Hasidic legend and then reflects on that legend. It also includes Wiesel's own memories, historical references, reflection, Old Testament stories, rhetorical questions, and imagined stories. It is not structured chronologically. The argument is revealed across these different structures.
  • Knowledge demands: The text is also demanding in this area. It assumes the reader has knowledge of the Holocaust, World War II in general, the post-war period, Judaism, and world events during the 1980s.
  • Language: The text is somewhat demanding in terms of language. Some of the language is conversational, but there are literary terms, abstract terms, and terms associated with the Jewish faith and culture.

Take a step back and consider how your students might interact with this text and what support they will need.

Now that we had done the hard work of analyzing the text, it was time for the teachers to think about how their students would likely interact with it and what support they might need. They reviewed the text demands and what they did as readers.

They started to think about and discuss the following questions, knowing that their students were different and that the answers would vary even in one classroom:

i. What could the students do independently?

ii. What could they do with scaffolding? What scaffolding?

iii. What will be the most confusing for the students?

iv. How will you address this confusion?

The teachers first decided that students could handle a first read of the text in sections, marking the text to show what they understood and did not understand. They felt the students would have enough vocabulary to make at least literal sense of the sections.

Using this process, the teachers realized that one of the biggest challenges in the text was its structure - it moves between anecdote, exposition, and narrative. They noted that to really make sense of the text, as adults, they had to attend to the shifts in structure and what each section of the text meant. They decided that the students would need the text broken into sections by shift in structure since they would not necessarily recognize those shifts on their own. Down the road, they would teach students how to recognize those shifts themselves.

Teachers commented that they felt empowered to help their students read meaningful and important complex texts - and to plan the right supports. In the past, they might have been inclined to skip the text altogether or just tell students what it meant.

The teachers developed a note-taking tool the students could use while interpreting the sections, asking themselves what each section meant and why the writer might have written it that way. They grappled with how to help students put the sections together at the end, and then decided that they could design a set of "text-dependent questions," questions with answers found with the text, to guide students to the key ideas in each section and how they built to the overall meaning. They decided, ultimately that they would spend several days with this text - and that it was worth the time.

While this was not an easy process, the benefit was apparent. In the end, the teachers commented that they felt empowered to help their students read meaningful and important complex texts - and to plan the right supports. In the past, they might have been inclined to skip the text altogether or just tell students what it meant. The process helped the teachers see each other as resources and built their instructional confidence, ultimately resulting in a rich learning experience for the students.

The process featured here was adapted from several sources including Achieve the Core.

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Topics: Common Core, Content Area Professional Development

About the author: Joanna Michelson

Dr. Joanna Michelson is a project director at the Center for Educational Leadership. She manages CEL's content area professional development and coach learning lines of services. She also provides direct support to teachers, coaches and school and district leaders in secondary literacy instruction and coaching. Prior to full-time work at CEL, Joanna has worked as a middle school language arts teacher, secondary literacy coach and as a consultant for CEL. She completed her doctoral degree at the College of Education at the University of Washington with a focus on coach learning from practice.

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