Text sets: Building blocks of background knowledge

Shannon Garrison

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom that provides in-depth reviews of several promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

It is rare to find an education website that provides classroom lessons, teacher planning tools, and professional development all in one place. Achieve the Core does this and more (see my earlier post). An especially impressive feature is its text sets, which are collections of texts organized around a specific topic that sequentially build students’ knowledge and skills.

Mindful that research indicates that text sets can improve students’ reading comprehension, I searched many sites for high-quality, comprehensive text sets. Those on Achieve the Core are among the best I have seen. They use a variety of quality texts, are specifically ordered to promote vocabulary development and build background knowledge, and provide teachers with classroom activities and guidance.

As described on the site, text sets are “lessons using a volume of reading on specific topics to support all learners in building background knowledge and vocabulary.” For teachers unfamiliar with this approach, Achieve the Core provides background information on how text sets build reading skills, their educational value, and testimonials from teachers who have used them in class. There is also an entire professional-development module dedicated to creating text sets.

As of September 2016, Achieve the Core had forty-one text sets in grades K–8 and 9–10 (the majority are for grades K–5). These are divided into two types: expert packs, which are text sets focused on a single topic and purposely ordered to help students build background knowledge and vocabulary, and research packs, which are designed to address a science content standard (based on Next Generation Science Standards), build background knowledge through reading about science, and address Writing Standards 2, 7, and 8 of the CCSS English-language-arts (ELA) standards.

Expert packs

As indicated, expert packs focus on a single topic and are intentionally ordered to build background knowledge and vocabulary. Achieve the Core emphasizes that “in order for the text sets to be effective, students must read/watch the resources in order. The early texts provide knowledge and vocabulary that scaffold student understanding of the later, more complex texts. When experienced in the correct order, students have demonstrated success with texts they otherwise would struggle with.” In other words, intentional sequencing is key.

Each expert-pack text set begins with a summary of its texts and resources, including a rationale and suggested sequence. It also explains the Common Core instructional shifts that the pack focuses on and highlights the reading standards that it meets. An annotated bibliography provides teachers with a brief synopsis of each text, including length, cost (if any), and where to locate it. Though the majority of texts are available online, some books need to be borrowed or purchased from outside sources. Packs also provide teachers with ideas for supporting struggling students, a guide that explains how to analyze text complexity, and descriptions of suggested classroom activities for each text. The latter is especially helpful for teachers who are new to text sets or unsure of how to implement them. Finally, a glossary with student-friendly definitions is provided at the end of the pack.

Let’s take a look at the second-grade expert pack on desert animals to see how students would benefit from this type of text set. The pack consists of ten ordered texts, including fiction and nonfiction books, poetry, articles, videos, and interactive websites. Of these, three books need to be borrowed from the library or purchased through an outside source (approximately $15 for all three), while the remaining texts are available online. The authors of the pack detail the sequence of the text set and explain their rationale. Students begin by using an interactive website to explore the desert habitat. Then, they document their questions and uncertainties, which set the purpose for their next few readings about specific desert animals. Students continue learning by engaging with various forms of text, including videos and websites. The text set wraps up with students selecting a desert animal of their choice to study. The text set supplies specific activities for each text, as well as cumulative activities that track student knowledge built across texts.

Research packs

Research packs integrate ELA and science to promote reading and writing across the curriculum and deep understanding of science and ELA writing standards. They include both student and teacher resources. One research pack is available at each grade level from K to 5. As indicated, research-pack text sets focus on single topics and are organized around a research question that guides reading, thinking, and a final writing piece on that topic. They are designed to take about four weeks in grades K–2 and six weeks in grades 3–5. The packs were developed in partnership with the Vermont Writing Collaborative and are very high quality.

The research packs were designed using the “gradual-release” model, whereby students gain increasing independence throughout the research process. They do this by breaking down a research experience into two parts—“become an expert” and “share the knowledge.” In the former, “students work closely with text to develop a rich and full understanding of the science content and gather and organize the information they will need to write about their research question.” In the latter, students use that content knowledge to write an informative piece.

For example, one grade-4 research pack is called “natural disasters.” It focuses on Earth and Space Science standard ESS3.B: “Natural Hazards—A variety of hazards result from natural processes (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions). Humans cannot eliminate the hazards but can take steps to reduce their impacts.” The research pack contains an introductory text (A Storm Called Katrina by Myron Uhlberg), an anchor text (Storm Warnings: Tornadoes by Chris Oxlade), and five text pairs that support the anchor text and focus on different types of natural disasters. The texts include nonfiction books, articles, and websites. Each pack includes three related research experiences on the same topic. They are conducted consecutively—first as a whole class, then in a small group, and finally at the individual level. All research packs follow a similar design.

The natural-disasters research pack begins with a whole-class research experience focused on the research question, “What hazards can result from tornadoes, and what can we do to reduce the impact of tornadoes?” Each student is given a seventeen-page packet that includes graphic organizers, questions, and activities to help guide their reading, thinking, learning, and writing. A teacher packet contains sample responses, answers, and writing samples. In this first part, the teacher uses the student packet to lead the class through the research experience to ensure that students gain the skills and conceptual knowledge needed to successfully complete parts two and three.

Next, each small group of students investigates a specific type of natural disaster using the same question stem they used in part one. For example, one group might ask, “What hazards can result from hurricanes, and what can we do to reduce the impact of hurricanes?” Students again receive a packet that supports them through the research process. They are guided through multiple reads of the text, vocabulary discussions, the recording of information, reading for evidence, content discussions, and sharing their learning.

Finally, in the third research experience, students focus on the same science concept but a different type of natural disaster (for example, earthquakes) and complete their project independently. By this point, the students are fairly familiar with the research process and the science content: “They are well-positioned to read, think, take notes, and write successfully on their own.” There is a shorter “individual research packet” that can be used to guide students through the process.

The research packs are an excellent way to integrate reading, writing, and science, and the student and teacher packets contain terrific resources for engaging students in the research process.

How can teachers use Achieve the Core’s text sets in class?

Achieve the Core’s “expert-pack” text sets are intentionally ordered to build vocabulary and background knowledge, making them a great resource to prepare students for a unit on a specific topic. For example, one fourth- and fifth-grade expert pack deals with the civil rights movement. It would be invaluable if a class is going to read a novel set during this period.

The sets can also be used to help students better understand how texts range in complexity. They are already ordered by complexity, and the pack includes a text-complexity guide. This helps teachers steer their students through an analysis of text features and promotes discussion of what makes a text complex.

Teachers can use the research packs to strengthen science instruction through the integration of text sets. Building background knowledge and vocabulary is key to conceptual understanding, and this is especially important in science, where many students have limited experience. Research packs provide multiple paths to access vocabulary and science concepts while strengthening reading comprehension and other language arts skills. They can also be used as a model for how to integrate text sets in other content areas, such as social studies. For instance, teachers can use the graphic organizers and activities to guide their own text-set development.

What are the greatest strengths of Achieve the Core’s text sets?

It is difficult to find pre-assembled, high-quality text sets, and they are time consuming to create, so the resources on Achieve the Core are extremely valuable to teachers.

One of their greatest strengths is that they are intentionally arranged to help build student vocabulary and background knowledge in order to strengthen reading comprehension. Of course, it’s possible to arrange texts in order to build both of these things without taking into consideration text complexity. But these sets do it all: they build background knowledge and vocabulary around a single topic, while also sequencing texts according to complexity.

The Achieve the Core text sets also include a variety of text types and texts of varying complexity. As teachers, we know the importance of exposing students to as many different types of texts as possible. Achieve the Core’s text sets include books, articles, poems, songs, speeches, historical documents, web sites, videos, and more.

Well-thought-out, quality activities also guide teachers through the use of the site’s ready-to-use text sets. The expert packs include suggested classroom activities for each of the texts included in the set. These are especially helpful for teachers who are new to text sets. The research packs provide both teacher and student with loads of helpful information, which guide them in teaching and learning the research process.

How might text sets on Achieve the Core be improved?

Achieve the Core’s text-set project focuses on creating text sets for grades K–5, as these are the grades where students develop many of their core reading-comprehension skills. So we find fewer texts sets for middle and high school students and none at all for grades 11 and 12. Developing more text sets for middle and high school students would certainly enhance the utility of these resources.

Another challenge is that using the sets sometimes requires teachers to access hard copies of the books. Though many of the texts included can be found online, teachers often need to track down the books that comprise part of the text sets. Some teachers have the time and resources for this, but it’s apt to discourage others. That said, I spent some time researching the availability and cost of the books listed in several text sets. For the most part, it was easy to find them in local libraries and the books were inexpensive, although some were out of print. For the research packs, it should be added, teachers will likely need multiple copies of texts, and these can be more difficult and expensive to obtain.

Finally, the website has so many resources that it can be a bit overwhelming to navigate if you are simply browsing rather than looking for something specific. Once familiar with the organization of the site, however, it is quite easy to find what you are looking for. And the quality of its resources makes it well worth the effort.

Conclusion

Overall, Achieve the Core contains quality, comprehensive classroom lessons, professional-development modules, and teacher-planning tools that are very helpful to educators searching for resources aligned to the Common Core. The resources are research based and high caliber. The site’s unique text sets are designed to promote background knowledge and vocabulary development. They provide teachers with just the right amount of information and guidance to help them effectively use text sets in their classrooms.

Look for my final post comparing the respective strengths and weaknesses of all three text-set resources that I’ve reviewed in this series later this week (Newsela, ReadWorks, and Achieve the Core).

Shannon Garrison is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in California with two decades of teaching experience. She holds National Board Certification, serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, and was also recently selected as a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year.