"Students can’t read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 7th grade!"

Jessica Gross and Salva DutWhen I was presented with the Expeditionary Learning (EL) modules, several doubts filled my mind…

My students will not know enough about Southern Sudanese water rights! 

How will my students connect to a story about a girl in the Lowell mills? 

Can my kids really understand a book that high school students usually read?

In the article, “Advancing Student’s Language and literacy,” Marilyn Jager Adams1 states, “To grow, our students must read lots.  More specifically, they must read lots of “complex” texts- texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thoughts.” (9).This was my goal and my class and I had much work ahead of us. With the support of the Expeditionary Learning lessons available on EngageNY.org, I worked hard to make complex texts accessible for each and every one of my students.  

"How," you might ask?   Here are a few of the keys…

Students need routine reading and rereading:  Students use a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd read strategy.  During the first read, students hear an adult fluently read the entire text.  During the second read, students answer text based questions that rely on careful close reading.  During the third read, students analyze the text, discuss how the author builds the argument and connect their background knowledge and other texts they have read to their new learning.  Using this routine reading expectation, students get used to going back to the text for details in their writing.  This amount of rereading was new for me and my students, and but has proven to be a powerful strategy to strengthening students literacy skills. 

Students need more of a focus on vocabulary: In my classroom, students are taught to depend on themselves for unknown words.  They do not stop reading like a deer in the headlights but rather “read around the word.”  They search for context clues, look at prefixes, root words, and suffixes. 

Students need thoughtful peer discussions: Several times in each period I say “turn and talk with your partner.”  Students share their thoughts with a partner, in a small group, and with the whole class.  Peer discussion takes time to develop.  Together the class created a group discussion anchor chart, practiced talking with groups, and reflected on what we did well and how we can still improve.  Students make predictions together, talk about discussion questions, and analyze pieces of text.  Peer discussion greatly aids in students’ reading comprehension.

Students need to find the connections and link texts thematically:  Researchers have found that developing strong background knowledge will help students learn from advanced texts.  The texts that we read this year were all thematically linked.  We explicitly pointed out the connections in themes about unsafe living conditions, people who were determined to persevere, and injustices throughout history.  In May, I was impressed to hear students referring back to texts that we read in October! My students were able to transfer their learning from the beginning of the year to the end because of the careful linking across units.

I have challenged my own thinking on complex texts throughout this school year.  Students never complained and said “I can’t do this, it’s too hard!” What I have learned is that with support and high expectations, my students can read and think deeply about novels that are above their Lexile level.  My students were able to read and understand so many books this year, even The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 7th grade!

Jessica Gross is a 7th Grade English Teacher at the Odyssey Academy in the Greece Central School District. Jessica is pictured here with Salva Dut, who is the main character in A Long Walk to Water, a book that all students read as part of the Expeditionary Learning Modules.  Mr. Dut visited Odyssey Academy’s 7th grade classrooms this school year.

1Adams, Marilyn Jager.  “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy.” American Educator, Winter 2010-2011.

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