What Chinese Takeout Taught Me about Text Selection

In February, I was holed up in a room for hours at a time as a text set reviewer for PARCC, one of the two largest consortia developing Common Core-aligned assessments. I was charged with deeply considering texts to determine if they were appropriate for literacy assessments. Among other things, I was looking for texts that required a nuanced examination of content and that were sufficiently rich with academic vocabulary and complex syntax.

While on break, I ordered Chinese takeout and spoke to a colleague on the phone. My colleague was across the country considering some of the very same issues I was, but through an instructional lens with the Text Set Project: a project facilitated by Student Achievement Partners to bring together educators and develop free, vetted, Common Core-aligned instructional materials focused on developing vocabulary and comprehension.

When my food arrived, filling the room with the garlicky smell of Szechuan eggplant, I tore open the top of the utensil pouch to find… one chopstick. I won’t tell you how I ended up eating my eggplant. But what I will share is that, interestingly enough, my missing chopstick made my colleague and me consider how text selection and instruction—like a pair of chopsticks—don’t really work well without the other. Here’s why:

Text selection is at the center of standards-based assessment and instruction. The Common Core requires teachers to consider text complexity through not only the quantitative measures they are accustomed to—the length of sentences or the number of challenging words, for instance—but also through structure, language features, purpose, and knowledge demands. As a result, planning for instruction in classrooms adopting new standards now starts with text selection, rather than breaking down the standards into individual skills and objectives. Multiple standards are used by teachers instructing to Common Core-aligned curriculums in order to support the understanding of texts and their form.

Here’s one example: a lesson on the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Instead of teaching to or assessing students’ mastery of a particular standard or discrete skill, this lesson teaches and assesses comprehension of the text itself—as well as the genre of poetry. By reading and re­reading the passage closely, and discussing the text with their peers, students discern how Lazarus constructed her poem. By writing about the passage and receiving teacher feedback on that writing, students have the chance to discover rich complexities in poetic language and how to analyze these complexities.

Texts that build knowledge are essential to instruction and assessment. Research shows that developing knowledge and understanding around concrete topics, rather than themes, is critical to improving students’ reading ability. That means texts need to be selected carefully to build a student’s range of knowledge over time.

We see this playing out in PARCC assessment item development, through the wide range of content that students may be asked to read and the types of questions they will encounter. But we also see this in planning for instruction with sets of texts, where it is important for teachers to analyze how they sequence or scaffold these multiple texts—with a range of complexity—in order to build students’ knowledge, vocabulary, and interest in a subject.

You can't have one without the other. Understanding how complex texts and knowledge development work in tandem to help students become strong readers is more important than ever. While we know that students who are engaged in standards-aligned instruction should be working with carefully sequenced content-rich texts, we also know that when students are taking high quality assessments, they will most certainly be asked to carefully read content-rich, complex texts. Complex texts must be at the heart of both instruction and assessment.

Learning about the world through a wide range of content can be a powerful motivator for students, especially for children who have limited access to content-rich life experiences. It has been shown that varied reading focused on a specific topic can increase comprehension and vocabulary up to four times faster than reading once about a single topic. Only by providing students with both complex texts, and the opportunity to grow knowledge around a topic through instruction, will they truly be prepared for college or a career in the future.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP