Think Your Middle Schoolers Can’t Read Academic Journals? Think Again.

When it comes to literacy instruction, teachers want their students to be comfortable and confident in the classroom. Arcane or confusing texts can discourage students and make them feel incompetent. So we often provide students with an easy way out, encouraging them to read only at grade level so as not to feel overwhelmed. “We do this out of kindness,” writes literacy expert Ron Berger, “but we do those students no favors by lowering expectations.”Balancing the demands of comfort and ease on the one hand, and growth and rigor on the other, is a complex task—but not an impossible one. In this excerpt from Transformational Literacy, Berger and his colleagues show how a group of middle schoolers mastered a text that seemed beyond their grasp—and even, perhaps, beyond yours.

A New Mindset About Complex Text

Several years ago, students at a Boston middle school gave us an opportunity to see how one’s mindset about complex text can shift . Before them they each had a copy of a scientific paper about lobsters, published in the Journal of Crustacean Biology (see figure 6.1 ). For many of the students, the text might as well have been in a foreign language. Even the title made no sense: “Substrate Determinants and Developmental Rate of Claw Asymmetry in American Lobsters, Homarus Americanus.” Inside students’ minds (as they shared later in discussion), alarms went off and things began to shut down: “This is crazy! It makes no sense! I’ll never understand this!”

Fortunately, the teacher had a different mindset about tackling this text, and soon the whole class did as well. Most students approach text expecting to understand it right away—they plow through and do their best to understand it after reading it once. If they struggle too much, they may begin to practice avoidance strategies, believing that the text is simply too hard for them. Too many experiences like these can affect students’ confidence as readers.

In this case, the teacher took a different approach. She said, “This is a great scientific paper by one of the world experts on lobsters. It has important information that will inform our study of Boston Harbor. But almost no one in the world has read it and few people can understand it. Even your parents may not be able to understand it. Some of the teachers here may not understand it. At least not right away. But together, we can make sense of it. We are in no rush.”

“Today we are just going to tackle the first page. We will start with the words we know and the sentences that make sense to us. And we will keep going until it all makes sense. I’ll bet there are many words you see right now that you understand, and parts of sentences, too. You will start alone, making sense of what you can, then you will work with two partners to share what you discover. Then all the triads will come together and share what they think. By the end of the period, we will understand this whole first page.”


The teacher had reversed the expectation from “you are a poor reader if you don’t understand all of this text” to “you are valuable to the class if you can understand any part of this text.” She set the expectation that they would move slowly and that everyone would have the chance to contribute to shared understanding. Students were now eager to try and poised to succeed. In the course of that period, the class learned a great deal.

Some of what they learned was about lobsters, but perhaps their most important learning was in literacy and scientific reading. They learned about the structure and language of scientific journal articles, including citation protocols, the structure and purpose of the abstract, and appropriate ways to share results of experimental studies. They learned new disciplinary vocabulary (e.g., substrate, cheliped ) and general academic vocabulary (e.g., occurrence, predominate ). And most significant of all, they left the class with pride, wanting to show their friends and family how “crazy‐hard” this paper was that they now understood—page one, at least. Other reading would seem easy by comparison.

For many readers, it doesn’t take a professional scientific journal article to make text intimidating: many texts are difficult to understand. In a classroom where the old mindset predominates, students feel that they need to move through text quickly and understand—or at least be able to pronounce—every word of it (or else they feel stupid), and struggling students often do everything they can to avoid difficult text. Sometimes we, as teachers, enable that avoidance. We do this out of kindness, but we do those students no favors by lowering expectations. It is important that students have access to text that is comfortable for them so that they can access content with ease and enjoy a high volume of informational and literary texts. But it is also important that every student tackles reading that is challenging (and maybe uncomfortable), when success in comprehension can foster pride and build skill. This requires a new mindset focused on depth and patience, on uncovering text rather than covering it.



Engage, challenge, and inspire students with work that matters.

Buy NowWritten by a team from Expeditionary Learning, this book helps teachers leverage the Common Core instructional shifts—building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction, reading for and writing with evidence, and delving into complex text—to engage students in work that matters. Worthy texts and tasks help students see the connection between their hard work as readers and writers and their capacity to contribute to stronger communities and a better world.

“Put Transformational Literacy at the top of your reading list. This book truly is about transforming, not just tweaking, practice in response to the Common Core State Standards. Perfect for study in professional learning communities, the book takes you inside schools and classrooms that provide ambitious, higher-order instruction for students from all backgrounds.”

NELL K. DUKE, Ed.D., Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture, University of Michigan

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