Teaching Skills for Complex Text: Deepening Close Reading in the Classroom
reviewed by Marcy Zipke & Susan F. Skawinski - June 21, 2017
Title: Teaching Skills for Complex Text: Deepening Close Reading in the Classroom
Author(s): Heidi Anne E. Mesmer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758140, Pages: 176, Year: 2016
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Close reading and complex texts are hallmarks of the Common Core Standards, and teachers are asked to push students ever further into reading and understanding challenging informational texts. In the introduction to Teaching Skills for Complex Text: Deepening Close Reading in the Classroom, Heidi Anne E. Mesmer describes this as a welcome course correction from years of focusing on avoiding reader frustration. Close reading, in this context, means having students read and re-read short texts while practicing targeted skills. Teaching Skills for Complex Text begins by discussing the smaller elements of text that can cause comprehension breakdowns, and builds to the larger units.
There are three sections to the book: the first few chapters address specific skills needed for comprehension, two chapters are devoted to helping students gather evidence in literary and informational texts, and the book closes with a chapter on challenging, or stretching, students. Each chapter has a parallel structure with anecdotes, an explanation of the skill/strategy and its connection to the Common Core Standards, teaching activities, as well as practice texts.
Mesmer begins this book with a focus on the smallest units in texts, and builds to the larger ones. Chapter One is focused on anaphora, or words that stand for other words used earlier in a sentence. A reader needs to be able to accurately identify the antecedent to which an anaphora refers in order to comprehend the text. Some anaphora are easier than others to understand, due to the distance between the words, background knowledge, and type of text. Mesmer recommends spending two weeks working in large groups, partners, and individually to write in the antecedent above the anaphora in practice texts (for example, identifying who their refers to in the sentence, On the day of the science fair Marcus and Jennifer took their project backboards to the school auditorium). Additional activities, including Substitution Charades and Anaphora Mad Libs, are described.
Chapter Two focuses on connectives in sentences, or words that link one clause to another. A student who does not explicitly understand, for example, that although or however signal that the upcoming ideas stand in contrast to what was just expressed will have trouble making sense of the text. Mesmer describes knowledge about connectives as a hidden skill that is often overlooked, but which is crucially important to close reading and effective writing. Again, basic activities where connectives are identified and defined in gradually smaller groups are supplemented with games and reminders, such as a connectives bookmark made by students.
Chapter Three moves from the sentence level to the paragraph level. Identifying the main idea in a short paragraph is described as the first step toward learning to summarize. Too often, teachers ask students to summarize longer texts without building their capacity to do so. For teaching paragraph comprehension, Mesmer recommends beginning with short constructed paragraphs that have a clear main idea and a topic sentence before transitioning to longer, authentic texts. Activities in this chapter include identifying topic sentences, finding the main idea, and learning about text structures/purposes.
Chapters Four and Five focus on gathering evidence from literary texts and informational texts, respectively, as textual evidence is an important focus of the Common Core Standards. In order to teach students how to keep track of evidence in texts, they need to grasp the texts structure, and they need to also understand meta-cognitive strategies like self-monitoring their comprehension and making predictions as they read. Post-it note strategies and specific graphic organizers are recommendations here. Students also need to be explicitly taught how to take notes and write outlines.
The final chapter moves away from specific comprehension strategies to advise on how to stretch students into texts above their reading levels. Here Mesmer talks about text complexity and building students stamina through explicit attention to executive functioning skills like emotional control and working memory.
In sum, the important contribution of Teaching Skills for Complex Text is the lesson plans (activities, strategies, games) for teaching elements of comprehension that are often overlooked. A teachers ability to provide high quality instruction to support students close reading success requires a deliberate understanding of text complexity. As an introduction to this important concept, Mesmers book contributes both topic-related background and practical applications that will expand practitioner knowledge. Theory and background information in each chapter are supplemented with suggested instructional chronology and supporting materials. Mesmers oft-mentioned caution about preparing to teach, and controlling the chosen texts, is noteworthy, as is her recommendation that students comprehension is best cultivated with real-world texts. Her suggested release-of-responsibility instructional design that begins with constructed text and transitions to authentic text will work well for both teachers and learners.
A missing element in Teaching Skills for Complex Text is attention to the assessment of student knowledge when it comes to skills like anaphora and connectives. It is rarely possible to address instructional issues without some attention to assessment. More critically, instruction should focus on what students need to know, as opposed to a fixed curriculum that does not concede prior knowledge, and teachers would be best served by uncomplicated and concise options for such assessment.
Finally, Mesmer has written elsewhere extensively and persuasively on text complexity and its importance to both close reading and comprehension, and such a framework would have contextualized some of the less-familiar but necessary concepts she addresses. That said, Teaching Skills for Complex Text does an excellent job identifying invisible comprehension sub-skills, as well as making best-practice recommendations.