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Tackling Complex Written Texts: 5 Strategies to Scaffold Reading

Imagine the following scenario: Riku is a 14-year-old multilingual learner of English in secondary school in New Zealand. Although he can read simple texts, he is not yet able to tackle the more complex texts used for teaching in most of his Year 10 classes. Riku mostly understands the teacher’s explanations in class but he struggles to make sense of written texts and feels frustrated that he is not able to follow along. He spends a lot of time trying to comprehend each word in a text, using bilingual dictionaries and online translators, but this slows him down considerably. This week, in science he is learning about the atmosphere and our climate. The teacher has planned for the class to research how the changing climate is affecting us and has several print and online resources available to students.

If you were Riku’s science teacher, what would you do? Given his challenges with reading, what supports could you offer to make complex texts more accessible to him?

What Makes a Text Complex?

First, let’s consider what makes a text complex. It is important to remember that written language is generally more complex than spoken language. This means that what students encounter in texts is not necessarily the same as everyday talk, so understanding texts requires a different skill set than understanding oral language.

Text complexity depends on a range of different factors, including how familiar you are with the topic and the type of text. For example, most people will find a newspaper article easier to understand than a technical report. This is because the topic and text type are likely to be more familiar to us. When we consider things like vocabulary and sentence structure, the newspaper article again will be easier because it is likely to use more everyday language and be free of jargon. The sentences are likely to be simpler. Other factors that affect comprehension include the length, the layout, and the availability of additional support through subheadings and visuals.

So, what can we do to make texts more accessible to all students? One strategy may be to simplify all texts for learners. But this is a controversial issue because simplifying texts can make them dull and make developing readers too dependent on the simplified versions. Additionally, the continued use of simplified texts can reduce the challenge and fail to provide the adequate level of language input to encourage language learning. Rather, amplifying the language by building definitions and explanations of difficult language into the text is seen to be a much better strategy.

1. Build Background Knowledge

Rather than simplifying texts, we could try building background knowledge about the topic in various ways before assigning a reading task. This could be through viewing a video; engaging in a class discussion; or introducing relevant real-life objects, like pictures and maps. Relate material to students’ lives wherever possible. For example, Riku’s teacher could show pictures of significant weather events in the past and in recent times as a way to engage the class in a discussion on climate change. They could watch a video that explains the concept and its effects in the local and global context. The additional support through oral language and visual resources would make comprehension easier for Riku.

2. Preteach Vocabulary and Concepts

Every new topic brings with it new concepts and new vocabulary. Spending some time at the start of the lesson to focus on new vocabulary would allow learners to identify key words and then to place them in context and remember them. Introduce new vocabulary, model its use, and consider adding them to a word wall for the week. When preteaching vocabulary, consider both conceptual and academic vocabulary.

3. Encourage Prereading Strategies to Increase Comprehension

Learners must be familiar with instructional words to fully participate in learning activities. Before assigning tasks, ensure that learners know the language embedded in the instructions. Do they know, for example, what a glossary is, or where to look for the index in a book? When a task asks learners to discuss something, what exactly is expected? How would they do that? How is it different from analysing or critiquing a text? Model the strategy, walk students through the process.

As you introduce the text, talk through what it looks like. Are there titles and subtitles? How is it organised? Are there diagrams and photographs? What do the captions say? Are key words highlighted? Is there a glossary? Talk through the look of the text, and model ways in which learners can skim and scan a text for information.

4. Promote Active Reading Strategies

Graphic organisers are a useful way in which dense content can be extracted and simplified. Use graphic organisers to separate large amounts of content information into manageable pieces of essential information and create a visual summary of the text. It also helps learners to see the big picture, and not become bogged down with meanings of individual words.

Set up reading partners or small groups where fluent readers are paired with learners who need more language support. The more able partners can provide one-on-one scaffolding through discussing the content and meaning. After reading each paragraph or section, they can discuss and write a one-sentence summary for the paragraph.

Make bilingual dictionaries available and teach students to use dictionaries effectively.

Ask clarifying questions to check understanding. Rephrase difficult content and use nonverbal clues to aid explanation.

5. Ask Text-Dependent Questions to Check Comprehension

After reading, ensure that the questions being asked are text dependent. That is, students must need to refer to the text itself, and not depend on their background knowledge, to answer it. What is the most important learning to be drawn from the text? What information is necessary to complete subsequent tasks? Base your questions around these essential elements.

What are some of your strategies to make texts more accessible to your learners? What has worked best for you?

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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