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How to Use Text Sets to Build Background Knowledge

Searching for engaging ways to build students’ background knowledge? Perhaps you need an activity to help students prepare to read a complex text, to write an essay, or to engage intelligently in a class discussion. Maybe you just want them to know a little bit about a topic before attending a presentation or lecture. Text sets might just be your new best friend. Here’s why.

What are text sets?

A text set is simply a collection of resources about a given topic. They typically include a range of media types. To make them engaging, students should have a variety of options to choose from. You may consider including…

  • articles
  • interviews
  • excerpts from books
  • infographics
  • political cartoons
  • podcasts
  • TED Talks
  • picture books
  • speeches
  • poems
  • stories
  • art

Teachers can compile text sets for topics students will be exploring. It may save time to collaborate with others who teach the same course. Plus, more perspectives can add depth to the text set.

How do text sets help students?

Text sets benefit students in ALL content areas. Students develop a wider understanding of a topic when they read many texts about it. And, research shows that background knowledge aids reading comprehension, critical thinking, and retention of information learned. In short, prior knowledge is a game changer!

Reading:  When students are preparing to read a complex piece, text sets can help to build their background knowledge on vocabulary, historical context, allusions, and more. Imagine students are preparing to read Romeo and Juliet. Dipping their toes in an article about mythology, information about social issues, and the poem Pyramus and Thisbe can provide them with background knowledge to recognize the allusions (like to Cupid, Echo, and Aurora), understand the relational tensions, and make connections with earlier texts on a similar theme.

Writing:  If you want students to write something, text sets help build them develop a more knowledgable voice. For instance, consider an editorial. Students will need to know about the role of the president and the issues surrounding compulsory voting in Australia (among other perspectives) before crafting their response. Text sets can be the springboard for credible research that will give them the confidence they need to write with an authoritative voice.

Discussions:  Then, there’s always speaking and listening. Often, students don’t participate in class discussions because they haven’t had time to formulate their opinions in a safe space. Text sets can help. By providing the essential question and sub-questions students will discuss, they can think through their ideas as they explore the texts. Text sets, coupled with turn and talk and informal, small group discussions, can be energizing and informative. In short, they can give students the confidence they need to speak up in a whole-class setting.

What does it look like?

Truly, text sets can be as basic or as simple as you’d like. Format them in a bulleted list, a choice board, or a virtual classroom graphic. I like to make text sets visually appealing for the added engagement benefit.

See an example below. Click here to make a copy for your Drive.

How do I create a text set?

When creating a text set, try to include texts that represent different angles of the topic. Texts sets can have one anchor text supported by a variety of sub-texts, or they could build in complexity. If you want an interest-based approach in which students choose which texts they’d like to explore, text sets can be more informally organized.

Begin by identifying the essential question you want students to explore or answer. For example, when I collaborated with another instructional coach in my district to create the above text set for social media, we debated what question would be the best for creating an open, interesting class discussion. After considering many options, we kept it simple and went with What do you think about social media? 

This general, high-interest question allowed us to build in a variety of sub-questions students could research and discuss to prepare for a larger, summative speaking and listening discussion. Some of the sub-questions we created include:

  • Is social media positive or negative?
  • How does social media keep the world connected?
  • What effect does social media have on human relationships?
  • How does social media influence public opinion (and the press)?
  • What limitations should be placed on social media and for whom?
  • Would the world be a better place without social media?
  • How has social media changed the way we think?
  • How can social media help and hurt your ability to get a job in the future?

High-interest text sets provide multiple perspectives, sub-topics, and genre types to engage students. If you can build in options that cover a variety of text complexities, it will help to engage readers at many readiness levels.

Text set questions for building background knowledge in middle and high school #TeachingReading #MiddleSchoolELA

Where do I find the texts?

Finding quality texts can be time consuming. So, it’s always helpful if you can work with others. To save you time, here are some of my starting points:

Should I include students?

Should you include students in the text set creation process? Absolutely! As with anything else, students love having agency in their learning. Use text sets to provide avenues for choice and voice. After students have experienced a text set you have created, invite them into the process! Tell them you need their help. It’s a great hook for promoting student-driven extension research. And, they can focus on filtering for credible sources.

How do I assign them?

If your students are used to working productively in a self-paced environment, text sets probably won’t present many issues! One of the keys to assigning text sets is making sure students know what the classroom environment should look, sound, and feel like as they work. Do you want students to take notes? record new vocabulary? work collaboratively? And, those norms are up to you…the teacher! So, define how you want students to work, talk about those expectations with your classes, and then practice until they get it.

As middle and high school teachers, one of the hardest parts about teaching is when students have huge gaps in background knowledge. No doubt, background knowledge prepares students to read complex texts, write with authority, and speak confidently. Even though they take a bit of time to compile, text sets allow for differentiation and small group teaching opportunities. Work them into learning stations, center activities, and more.

If you need a strategy to support students where they are, provide high-interest choices, and teach flexibly, text sets may be just the thing you need.