Academic journal article English Journal

Using Text Sets to Foster Critical Inquiry

Academic journal article English Journal

Using Text Sets to Foster Critical Inquiry

Article excerpt

Competence may be the reason for engagement. But maybe it's the other way around. Maybe engagement is the cause of competence.

- Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith, "Making It Matter through the Power of Inquiry"

When I was in elementary school I could read very well, top of my grade. But I couldn't respond to the books. But these books I can." Seventh-grader Nathan shared this insight as he described what he learned as he studied text sets throughout the year. Although Nathan considered himself a good reader, he felt he lacked the skills necessary to meaningfully respond to texts. What changed wasn't the type of books Nathan read for school; rather, it was the habits he used to engage with his reading. Unbeknownst to Nathan, authentic inquiry changed the way he interacted with texts.

In a way, Nathan's response poses the same paradox as Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith's statement: Do students participate in authentic inquiry because they are strong readers and writers, or do students become better readers and writers by engaging in authentic inquiry? Like the Common Core State Standards, our state standards require students to read successfully, synthesize ideas, and write at sophisticated levels. Teachers in our state and elsewhere feel increased urgency to help students master these kinds of skills and perform well on new assessments. But beyond the pressures of testing, ultimately teachers also want students to engage with literary and informational texts in ways that cultivate inquiry skills or, in Nathan's words, to respond to books in meaningful ways.

In this article we describe text sets that promote authentic learning and help students develop reading and writing skills by participating in meaningful inquiry. Beginning with a discussion of how text sets facilitate the inquiry process, we describe three different ways Devery incorporated text sets into her seventh-grade curriculum to foster inquiry and prepare students for the Common Core test. As students asked questions, searched out answers, and taught one another about ideas, they developed habits of inquiry that informed their approach to texts. We conclude with a discussion of student responses that, like Nathan's, reveal how text sets support meaningful and motivating learning.

Text Sets as Inquiry units

Devery's ultimate goal was to help students become independent readers and writers who sought answers to authentic questions and read with critical eyes. Bob Fecho describes an inquiry classroom as one that questions mainstream values, honors multiple interpretations and perspectives, and where teacher and students learn together through dialogue and exploration (153). To create such an environment, Devery knew students needed to read multiple texts that presented a variety of positions and interpretations. As she considered how to organize her instruction to facilitate this kind of experience, text sets provided an answer.

Comprised of texts from different genres, readability levels, and perspectives organized around a common theme, text sets invite students to explore a variety of resources in answer to an inquiry question. As Gail Ivey noted, text sets focus on concepts rather than a single book because "students gain both a broad perspective and an in-depth sense of the subject matter from reading many texts on the same topic" (22). Text sets also support teachers who take a critical approach toward literacy by encouraging readers to question the author's agenda, as well as the missing voices (Vasquez). In this way, text sets facilitate deeper and more meaningful inquiries than studying a single book.

Text sets also promote inquiry across content areas and genres. Used in science (Heisey and Kucan), social studies (Robb), and language arts (Tovani), text sets include primary and secondary sources encountered by scientists, historians, writers, and researchers, allowing students to conduct in-depth research by reading authentic texts (Ivey). …

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