Helping Students Access Complex Texts in Aligned Lessons

I love teaching 5th grade, especially in the fall.  I enjoy watching my students settle into our school year, relaxing into the rhythm of our daily work of reading and writing together.  In our 5th grade state standards, there is a delicate dance between “learning to read” and “reading to learn.”  There is an expectation that students to be competent readers and begin to use higher level thinking skills when they enter 6th grade.

That’s another reason that I love teaching 5th grade- it’s one last chance to help any struggling readers fill in any gaps and develop a love of reading so they are better equipped to meet challenging standards across all subjects.  Students need comprehension skills and reading stamina to glean the information they will need to be successful in their upcoming middle and high school years.

This week I found myself lamenting with a colleague over our lack of aligned curricular resources to meet our students’ needs in reading, particularly our struggling readers.  We were planning to integrate reading and social studies to celebrate Constitution Day but needed strategies for our struggling readers to grasp the complex text of the Constitution.  We also needed ways to engage all our students in text that is over 200 years old, which as my fellow colleagues know, is not an easy task!

Having academic standards like the Common Core Standards, provide teachers with the freedom to use our existing knowledge and experience in our teaching.  They allow us space for the development of new resources we can integrate into our teaching, like readily-accessible model lesson plans and curricula.


We developed multiple materials to engage our preteens and teens in the Constitution Day celebration.  My colleague took the body of the Constitution, while I took the Preamble.  Using a variety of scaffolds and strategies, we were able to help struggling readers understand the text and meet the needs of different types of learners. By doing so, they were all able to meet the challenging standards and understand the complex text.

We used a variety of gestures, reader’s theater, Socratic Seminar to engage all of our students. Gestures can convey information and concepts to my students in ways that is easier to interpret than learning vocabulary words alone, and research has shown that motor gestures help learners understand the message and remember is more easily. I paired each large concept/challenging word to a gesture, and we practiced reading the Preamble while using the gestures as we discussed the meaning of the important concepts.

For our reader’s theater, I adapted the text Unite or Die! How 13 States Became a Nation, based on the book by Jacqueline Jules and incorporated a variety of speaking and non-speaking roles, so all my students could participate. The students practiced reading it, increasing their fluency and expression, building the confidence of even the most struggling readers and shy students.  Of course, each time we ended, we celebrated with a well-earned bow and lots of giggling!


To leverage my students’ love to talk out issues and develop their voices, we also held a Socratic Seminar. There was only one main rule students had to follow: “Don’t be a hog, and don’t be a log!” As the facilitator of the Seminar, I posed questions such as “How would life be different without the Constitution?” and allowed students to direct the conversation.  Using sentence stems, students were able to use evidence from the text to support their statements for issues that arose in our discussion., Socratic Seminar is a great standards-aligned exercise that not only prepares students for writing but is also a great tool for assessing their understanding.

The teaching strategy that I loved the most was engaging the rest of our school and community in Constitution Day. Our students created and wore buttons that said, “Ask me about the Preamble!” This provided them with the opportunity to perform either our gestures or the readers’ theater to other groups of students. We received amazing feedback from our families, including one grandma who was so impressed that her grandson, who speaks little English, could translate for her what “to ensure domestic tranquility” meant!

Providing multiple scaffolds to a challenging text a is an effective strategy to help students meet high standards.  Students can then apply higher level thinking skills to comprehend complex text. My students stepped up to the plate and showed me they could meet the high expectations I had for them. This makes me more excited to see what the rest of this 5th grade year will look like!

Beth Maloney is in her nineteenth year of teaching and enjoys every minute of her time in her fifth-grade classroom in Surprise, Arizona. Beth is a National Board-Certified Teacher, president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teachers Network, and coaches other teachers undergoing rigorous National Board certification.