Five Student-Centered Ways to Support Unpacking Complex Text

Five Student-Centered Ways to Support Unpacking Complex Text

Getting students to read and unpack complex text by locating evidence to support their ideas, and then evaluate what they’ve read requires a high level of critical thinking.  Most classrooms house a range of readers and writers, each expected to do this highly complicated task. How can students be supported with appropriate learning experiences and texts so they can do such a high-level thinking task? While students require scaffolds in the journey to become proficient readers and writers, they need to build a sense of ownership over this process. It’s unlikely any student needs a teacher nattering in their ears to read texts that are too hard, or are of no interest. Fortunately, there are ways to support students with this work while building their independence. To ensure that all students achieve their own level of success with this, here are five ideas to think about:

  1. Provide time to develop a love for reading and writing. Find time, any time possible, to devote to flexible choice in literacy activities. Allowing students to choose the books they want to read and letting students have choice in what they write can be a way to push students to the next level without the same pressures as during a structured literacy block. Let them sit and think about their book. Let them talk about their ideas for writing. Give them the freedom to explore as they respond to texts, and you may hear through their conversations that students are talking about the text with a complex lens.
  1. Use your environment to develop literacy. Your classroom environment is the silent yet screaming teacher in your room! Print rich rooms with areas set up for students to engage in reading and writing, of varying content is a way to invigorate your reluctant learners as well as your risk-takers. Setting up your classroom in a way that allows students to learn from the place where they physically spend so much time is for the benefit of all students. Early childhood rooms are set up so the little ones are engaged in their learning environment, so why can’t that be done at any level? Teachers are creative thinkers and can enable students to use their environments in a way that leave students wanting to spend the afternoon interacting with texts and their peers. Using the people in their environments to support this process is an important part of setting up a rich learning experience. As we know, students do not and should not solely rely on their teacher to become better readers or critical thinkers. They learn valuable information from their physical environment and skills from each other.
  1. Personalize reading and writing. It’s fairly easy in the digital age to find content about anything on BrainPop, Newsela or by searching on Kiddle. Using a Google add-on to adjust the reading level is easy and accessible for most classrooms today. Using these sites makes it easy to personalize the content so that students are learning to read and write about areas of interest, empowering them in their to then want to investigate  assigned topics or content. Finding the entry point for each student or group of students will allow them to feel the success of comprehending a complex text. Any success pushes students to want to continue to challenge themselves.
  1. Use visible thinking routines to gain knowledge of entry points. Want to know what they are thinking before they’ve read, or after reading to see how thinking has changed? Do a thinking routine like a Chalk Talk or Think-Puzzle-Explore and link this to inquiry when we make observation to evaluate and then synthesize information. Once you’ve allowed for exploration and investigation of texts and content, using another visible learning strategy like “I used to think… but now I think…” allows students to demonstrate their learning from the text.
  1. Listen and prompt through questioning. Getting students to think more about what they’ve read, even if they initially don’t understand everything, They can be supported with different types of questions to guide their discussions before students need to evaluate and synthesize their thinking into writing. Asking evaluating questions like “how did”, “why did”, “which can” to probe thinking can really stimulate students to think before they write.

In any classroom, students will struggle with literacy experiences and others will excel. Pulling back on the teacher-centered approaches to teaching reading can create unexpected gains in knowledge and comprehension. Giving students time to explore literacy in a way they may not have previously could spark an independent interest in wanting to become a more skilled reader. Empowering them to become deeper thinkers when reading will get them wanting to tackle the challenge in their own way. Providing the opportunities to learn and grow as people who interact in literacy experiences and meeting them at their level is essential in supporting growth and success.


Koechlin, Carol & Zwaan, Sandi. (2014). Q Tasks, 2nd Edition.

Ritchhart, Ron; Church, Mark & Morrison, Karen. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners

Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman currently teaches primary school at ISS Singapore and is an active member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders program. Her previous experiences include the role of Pre-K Instructional Coordinator and Coach, and elementary teacher and teacher leader for the New York City Department of Education. She began her career in education in Edmonton, Canada.