I recently read Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher’s Rigorous Reading: Five Access points for Comprehending Complex Texts. The book is an excellent resource for new teachers and a solid review for experienced ones. Frey and Fisher offer practical advice, broken down into five “access points,” on how to teach to specific Common Core standards. Access Point Two discusses the importance of “close reading” of complex texts, and the need for “limited frontloading,” and “text dependent questions,” meaning that the teacher should not provide too much contextual information to students or ask them to think about how their own experiences relate to the reading.
I agree with the authors that teachers should allow students to find meaning within a text from the text itself. However, I do not agree that teachers should not provide any context, and assume that their students will automatically connect what they are reading to students’ personal experiences. They write that “ . . . the argument for text-dependent questions asserts that discussions (and writing prompts) should focus on the text itself to build a strong foundation of knowledge.”
For me, it is imperative for educators to provide at least some context before their students approach a complex text. What I have noticed in my tutoring practice, however, is that my students often know little or nothing about the authors they study. Providing a few details about a writer can offer a viable path to comprehension. Students should know something about Harper Lee’s early life as a southerner and a lawyer’s daughter, or that Hawthorne was descended from New England Puritans, or that John Steinbeck was employed as a hired hand on California ranches. This knowledge will enhance and inform their reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, or Of Mice and Men.
As a private writing tutor, I make it a point to talk about the author’s personal and professional life and explain how their experiences often relate directly to the work my students are reading. I believe providing them with context gives them a better understanding of the texts they study and that therefore this enhanced understanding will help them when they write papers.
All texts and their authors have a context. Students deserve to know that context before they begin reading.