Text Tension - National Council of Teachers of English
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Text Tension

Many “acceptable” reading curricula resemble an orderly progression of texts organized by steps and numbers when neither make sense.

What’s Your Lexile Score? 


How do we negotiate the “approved reading list,” which presumably represents the needs of the course and is often dated, while considering student choice in reading material, which we know and which research tells us has a substantial impact on the development of reading skills?

How can our course be true to its description and, at the same, time relevant and meet students’ learning needs?

I know from experience that if my students don’t connect with a text, they just won’t read it—enter SparkNotes. I also know that traditional and centuries old texts can become accessible so students connect with them if my teaching and how I set up the text in the class are done well.

In their 2012 report Every Child, Every Day,  Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel outlined six elements of successful literacy programs. Replace the word “child” with “student” as you read the six elements and think about the list of required/approved readings for the course/class you’re teaching:

1. Every child reads something he or she chooses.
2. Every child reads accurately.
3. Every child reads something he or she understands.
4. Every child writes about something personally meaningful.
5. Every child talks with peers about reading and writing.
6. Every child listens to a fluent adult read aloud.

NCTE’s Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs offers much sound, helpful advice on selecting texts for your students in the course(s) you teach.

Instructional materials are essential tools in the English language arts classroom. They allow students to interact with words, images, and ideas in ways that develop their abilities in multiple literacies such as reading, listening, viewing, thinking, speaking, writing, and technology. Because instructional materials are a primary resource for English language arts teachers, they must be selected wisely. . . .

Instructional materials in the English language arts program should align with the general philosophy of the school or district, the curriculum goals and objectives of the English language arts program, and the learning outcomes of the particular course or grade level. . . .

Policies should also reflect the understanding that an English language arts program is not one instructional resource, but many; not one curriculum objective, but several. Therefore, English language arts policies should seek to build a collection of instructional materials that as a whole create balance and emphasis in the curriculum. . . .

Finally, materials must be selected with an eye toward coordinating instruction within and between grade levels, courses, and disciplines. . . .

Reading materials which draw upon students’ backgrounds are desirable. Both comprehension and engagement are enhanced when students can activate relevant background knowledge as they read, connecting their personal experiences with vicarious experiences. This does not deny the value of reading about the unfamiliar and even the fantastic. But the relevance of a work to students’ daily lives or to the lives of their imaginations is worthy of consideration in the selection process. . . .

[G]ood English language arts programs typically involve classroom libraries and extensive reading lists that individualize and expand student choices.

Great advice but how do you put it into action in your own classes? You may need to find ways to work the list of text “musts” at the same time you introduce choice and the text “wants.” There are many NCTE articles and books about pairing classic and contemporary texts, for example. Maybe you’re ready to #BuildYourStack through a new NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries.

Maybe you’re ready to work with your colleagues to broaden and articulate the “approved” list at the same you’re expanding ideas for student reading choice. Try these blogs for ideas: Selecting Texts for Your Students and Your Course, Teachers Know, The Students’ Right To Read Redux, and Championing Choice in a School that Doesn’t.

And, should you run into difficulty, do consult the Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Instructional Materials and contact the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center for help and advice.