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Complex Texts, Higher-Level Thinking: Developing Enduring Literacy Habits

by Maria Walther
 | Jun 04, 2013
When I read the Common Core State Standards, it is clear to me that we have to transform our teaching to better prepare students to achieve the standards. Transform our teaching? That sounds a bit overwhelming! But, really, it’s not. By simply making a few instructional shifts, those of us who teach in K-2 classrooms can guide learners in developing the habits of mind necessary to independently read, write, think, and converse about complex texts.

Encourage rereading and close reading

p: Barrett.Discovery via photopin cc
I don’t know about the children in your classroom, but I have many kids who are quick to say, “We read that in kindergarten.” My answer to that remark is always, “That’s wonderful! It’s an old favorite. I love old favorites because every time I read them, I can learn something new and interesting. I can read it with new eyes. So, here’s your challenge today, ‘What can you find with your first-grade eyes or learn with your first-grade mind that you didn’t notice in kindergarten?’” To develop the habit of rereading for our youngest readers, select engaging books. The Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems has hooked many a reader in my classroom. When we view these books through a “text complexity” lens we see the multiple teaching and learning opportunities these books offer when read again and again. At their most basic level, the books are ideal for strengthening children’s foundational sight word knowledge. Then, Willems’ engaging illustrations offer opportunities to converse about interplay between visuals and text. Pairing students to perform a readers’ theater starring Elephant and Piggie will build their fluency.

Another book that offers the same layers of meaning is DUCK! RABBIT! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Read it the first time for pure enjoyment. Return again to discuss who children think is narrating the story. Place it in the reading center for partner reading (great fluency practice!). Return to it to spark a conversation about different perspectives. The more you demonstrate the power of rereading and close reading, the more willing students will be to adapt this learning stance.

Engage in collaborative conversations

If you’ve ever said “turn and talk” in a primary-grade classroom, you know exactly what happens. The students turn toward each other (maybe) and begin talking at each other. Over the past few years, my co-author Katherine Phillips (MONTH-BY-MONTH READING INSTRUCTION FOR THE DIFFERENTIATED CLASSROOM) and I have spent a lot of time working to support our learners as they talk collaboratively. Collaborative conversations are the layer we’ve added to our instructional read-alouds and guided reading lessons to help children meet the Common Core Standards. Teaching children how to listen carefully to what others are saying before sharing their own thinking or opinion is challenging. We’ve provided children with key questions and phrases that help them link their thinking to their classmates’ thinking like, “Why do you think that?” or “Tell me more about your thinking.”

Expect evidence

We’ve become skilled at asking questions to assess students’ background knowledge or prompt them to make personal connections to the text. With the Common Core State Standards in mind, we need to refocus our questioning a bit to draw readers back into the text to support their thinking.

Some questions that spark text-based conversations include the following:

  • Why do you think that?
  • What in the text or illustrations helped you to come to that understanding?
  • Can you show me in the pictures or words where you learned that/why you think that?
You’ll notice that the three instructional shifts I’ve shared all relate to the way you and your students read, think, and converse about books. As a children’s literature fanatic and a read-aloud proponent, I think that selecting the right texts is one key to unlocking the standards, but that’s a topic for another blog!

Maria Walther, who earned a doctorate in elementary education from Northern Illinois University, has taught first grade since 1986. Along with teaching young learners, Maria inspires other professionals by sharing her knowledge through customized professional development experiences. The ideas she shares reflect her continued commitment to teaching, researching, writing, and collaborating with her colleagues. Maria was honored as Illinois Reading Educator of the Year and earned the ICARE for Reading Award for fostering the love of reading in children. She has co-authored five professional books with Scholastic. Learn more about her books and find other teaching resources at

© 2013 Maria Walther. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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