Collaboration and Environment: The Importance of Productive Struggle, Part 2

Last week we wrestled with our own discomfort in allowing students to struggle with complex texts and difficult tasks and concepts. There is a fine line between providing support without rescuing. This week we will look closer at what that “support without rescue” looks like.

In the Inquiry By Design curriculum, teachers will notice that student collaboration is the main component of support when students are struggling to comprehend a text. When working together, students act as models for each other. One student may be able to explain how he used the context clues to figure out a word. The other student may have identified a root of a word that helped him understand it. Another may have shown how he used punctuation to address complex syntax to figure out an entire paragraph.

Students’ various background knowledge is shared during these collaborative times. They also learn how to use external resources to figure out what they can’t discover in the text. This is a normal strategy that we use as adults when we can’t figure something out in a text—we “look it up” without any thought about being judged for not knowing.

During peer learning labs, teachers also note the importance of a safe environment that encourages students to not only identify what they know in a text, but what they don’t. This environment allows all students to realize that each person may find different moments in a text complex and difficult—and that it is ok not to understand a text on the first reading, or even the second, or third. Students are encouraged to identify difficult moments and determine the best methods for figuring them out (asking questions, using context clues, collaborating, sharing background knowledge, and using outside resources). Then, through targeted rounds of rereading and collaboration students form a more comprehensive understanding of the text or interpretation as they progress.

Struggle is not a dirty word. While we don’t want everything that a student reads to be far beyond her independent reading level, a regular dose of difficult texts with instruction that includes a safe environment, collaboration, and multiple readings of a text is important. Providing students with regular opportunities for productive struggle is not only a reading comprehension issue; it is also an equity and access issue. Too often, students who are behind their peers in reading are placed in literacy or language arts classes that provide consistently easier texts than their more advanced peers. The authors of Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading contend that “performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not. And this is true for both genders, all racial/ethnic groups, and all family income levels.” They also argue that “students who correctly answer questions based on complex texts can score potentially as many as 10 points higher on the Reading Test than students who can correctly answer only questions based on uncomplicated texts.” If students never practice dealing with difficult texts in a supportive collaborative environment, they will not gain the cognitive strategies to deal with difficulty independently.

Struggle is Not a Dirty Word:  The Importance of Productive Struggle, Part 1