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Fewer Texts for Deeper Understanding

by Lorna Collier

In their new book, Beyond “Teaching to the Test”: Rethinking Accountability and Assessment for English Language Learners, literacy specialists Betsy Gilliland and
Shannon Pella explore ways teachers can provide a more equitable education for
English language learners.

Using fewer—but high-quality—texts can work better than using many texts, say Pella
and Gilliland. The benefits are varied:

Rather than having to struggle to keep up with the basic idea of many texts, ELLs only need to master the content of a few texts or even a single text before working on understanding the language structure and other textual elements.

“If you have one really good text, first they figure out what it means, but then they can access and start thinking about how it is constructed,” says Gilliland.

“Kids become experts on specific texts. They can tell you not just what it was about,
but how it was made and why it was made that way.”

Grammar can be taught in terms of its functionality within the text being studied,
says Gilliland, as opposed to saying, ” ‘here’s a rule, memorize it and then we
hope it transfers into your writing.’ ”

“Teachers might be surprised how much farther you can go with a single text in
teaching a variety of different things,” says Pella, who taught secondary school
English for 15 years. “That was one of my biggest ‘a-has’ as a high school and
middle school teacher.”

The pace of teaching slows when students go back again and again to just a handful of
texts, “taking time to really unpack and analyze them,” Pella says.

She believes this makes the learning experience “much more thoughtful, with more
depth,” than what occurs when teachers use rigid pacing guides.

And when ELLs develop awareness of text features, they can access the same grade-
level material their mainstream peers are using, Pella and Gilliland point out—which
provides equity.

Learn more about this new book.

Lorna Collier is a writer and editor based in northern Illinois.

Read more in the article “Flipping Accountability on Its Head” in the September 2017 Council Chronicle.

Read a sample chapter or order the book.