Embracing Complex Texts: Accessing and Building Background Knowledge

I suppose there should be a blog focusing solely on embracing complex texts, perhaps there is.  That research is for another time, but I am certain it would benefit English Language Arts teachers.

I must note that my ideas are not unique or original, maybe just articulated in a different way.  I have developed these ideas over the many years I have been an educator and the many hours of collaboration with colleagues and other professionals.

When I begin a unit where the anchor text is a complex one (i.e., The Odyssey, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, etc.) I scrawl across my whiteboard EMBRACE YOUR CONFUSION.  Yes, this is a phrase I have borrowed (stolen?) from Kelly Gallagher, the educator who has ignited an inferno inside of me for teaching, at the high school level, reading and writing (SEE Embracing Complex Texts).  I want to guide students to become effective, engaged readers.  I have gone so far as to use the phrase “Man Your Oars!” to high school freshmen as they embark on the journey of The Odyssey.  In fact, I extend the metaphor throughout the unit by illustrating that ‘manning your oars’ means each student is responsible for reading, discussing, re-reading, discovering, and applying the most important ideas (or themes) to personal, real-life experiences.  Furthermore, students can hold each other accountable when asked (or forced as my students may quip under their breath) to collaborate by reminding each to “Man Your Oar!”  On a side note, as a class we will use the twitter hash-tag #manyouroars to promote a blended experience and move the classroom beyond the walls of room #452.

Accessing, acquiring, and building background knowledge for a complex text certainly seems overwhelming and daunting, maybe even a bit tricky, particularly, given the wide-ranging demographics and life experiences of all students.  I begin by deciding what I want my students to experience while they read and as a result of reading the complex text.  Keep in mind, these are two fundamental layers of the reading experience: the processing during the reading and the analysis, interpretation, and application post-reading.  Addressing these fundamental layers of the reading process will produce a positive, engaging reading experience, but before that happens we must set the scene for success by building background knowledge.

Whether I have been using an anchor text for many years or, in contrast, am using it for the first time, I might ask myself (or my colleagues…they are priceless resources of information!!!) one or more of the following four questions, as I am certain all educators do:

  1. What is the point of using this anchor text?
  2. What value does reading this anchor text have to the modern teenager?
  3. Why are we reading this anchor text?
  4. In the end, what lasting experience will students have after reading the text?

With these questions, and possible solutions, in mind, I choose four or five major ideas the anchor text will likely illustrate to most engaged readers.  For example, The Odyssey presents ideas of loyalty, fate, free-will, leadership, pride, courage, and heroism (among others).  After choosing four or five of these big ideas – and this is where Gallagher’s work comes back into play – I will ask students to conduct a web-search with multiple layers.  First, students need to understand the meaning of these big ideas in the context of metaphor and literature.  Second, students will find multiple examples of these big ideas across genres.  As a third layer, I may add to the search, as seen in The Odyssey, the requirement for students to research, understand, and apply literary terms such epic and epic hero.  Another layer may include research of the author, including the time and place the author lived showing the influences to the ideologies and philosophies presented in the literature.

When students have been given ample time to complete their web-search, I will ask them to share, in small groups, what they have learned.  Students are to compare and contrast ideas and they should add to their notes if a classmate has something they don’t.  Next, the students will be asked to summarize their ideas into one statement per big idea they researched.  For heroism (The Odyssey web-search), a small group of students wrote, “A hero is someone who does something courageous to help someone else.”  Another small group wrote, “leadership is getting people to believe in you and getting others involved” when addressing leadership.  As a large group, students share these summarized ideas which, in return, lay the foundation for the ideas students will encounter as they read.  In addition, I learn valuable information from the students as to where they are in their background knowledge and where their interests might guide our activities.

The next step in web-search process is having students fill out a K-W-L-R Chart (many have done this, Gallagher included).  In one column students will identify what they K now about the topic, what they W ant to know about the topic by the time they finish reading, what they have L earned as they read, and, finally, R emaining unanswered questions upon completion of the reading.  Frequently throughout the unit I direct students back to the K-W-L-R Chart to add more questions or resolve any previous questions.

The K-W-L-R chart, or similar activity, is a key component (guide) for my instruction and the path my students will take throughout the unit.  The remaining unanswered question(s) will result in a research project for students to further explore the gaps of information.

The end result cannot be achieved without building background knowledge.  Students will be engaged with a complex text when they have a foundation of knowledge that gives them a purpose for continued reading.  Once I have helped students access relevant background knowledge, I can then provide some tools to utilize while reading a complex text.  My goal, as always, is to have students become confident readers who are not intimidated to attack any text on their journey.  Embracing complex texts can only happen when students have acquired enough background knowledge  that empowers them to man their oars.

There are many more activities teachers use to build background knowledge such as literary bridges, vocabulary study, and virtual (cyber) experiences.  If you have other suggestions, I would love to read about them.  


About jpsteltz

Proud husband and father of four; Literacy Specialist; Reading Teacher; Literacy Coach; HS ELA Teacher; Published Author
This entry was posted in Education, Reading, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Embracing Complex Texts: Accessing and Building Background Knowledge

  1. Marcie CJ says:

    I love the call to “Man Your Oars!” If we could all incorporate this into our daily lives, things might get done a bit better, a bit more efficiently. What a great challenge to students, especially when you, as an educator, are keeping in mind those four key questions about the texts. Thanks for the encouragement!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Embracing Complex Texts: Supporting First Reads « John Steltz: Teacher/Author

  3. Pingback: Embracing Complex Texts: 2nd Draft Reading | Beauty Beyond the Surface

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