Layering “Texts” to Deepen Understanding as Students Read (Secretly modeling how to be passionate about inquiry) by Shelli Thelen

History is an important window for all students to view the world through. As a child, I learned about American history and ancient civilizations. I was not interested in history as a student until we began to learn about more contemporary events that occurred in the 20th century. As a fifth-grade teacher of social studies in the 21st century, I have learned that history is more global than I believed to be as a student. I have also found that throughout our world history, certain themes continue to bubble up: Class, Freedom, Entitlement, and Justice.

One of my most favorite things about being an elementary teacher is that I get to “dip” my hands into all of the content areas each day. I get to connect objectives across the content areas while students have time and space to really explore an idea. My favorite question to hear from a student is, “Wait. What are we doing? Are we in reading or social studies? Or are we in writing?”  We all can feel the seamless groove when things meld together.

Approaching some historical content for the first time can bring lots of new vocabulary, people, events, and ideas. Students have varying background knowledge on the topics that we study. While students will be making new knowledge as they read, I have found that presenting them with “layered texts”, usually curated on a Padlet, has helped enrich the book club experience. This strategy, “layering texts”, can help students see the connections between historical events and current events. Providing a text set where students are reading a variety of print and language from a few historical periods helps students see the relevance and importance of learning about our past and present.  Some possible ways to create a “layered text set” is to include the following formats:

  • podcasts

  • virtual tours from a museum or historic place

  • articles from NewsELA or CommonLit

  • Video clips from History.com or Biography.com among other reliable sources

  • poetry

  • recipes

  • songs

  • chapter books

  • picture books

  • Image study (art or photos)

  • Movie Clips (www.wingclips.com is a great resource and is organized by theme)

  • Trunks or Treasures!! Check with your local or state museum, or library, do they have educational resources that they loan out to teachers? Our state museum has a “civil war trunk” with replicated clothes, artifacts, and flags.  They have them for other topics too!

Curating resources in one space helps students get right to work and ensures that the content is appropriate for the learner.  Using digital resources like Padlet or Thinglink can help curate resources and allows students to return to the resources time and time again.  If students continue to use “layered texts” in their reading lives, they begin to seek these resources out on their own. As the curator of these resources, the teacher is expanding their own knowledge of the subject and more than likely their enthusiasm for what they have discovered will spill out to the readers.  Thus, secretly modeling what passionate learners do. Inquiring minds want to know!  When we read, we seek out more information!

For example, here is one padlet created for the https://padlet.com/sthelen/civilwar  this is a padlet that works across all civl war book groups. It is helpful when they encounter ideas they would like to zoom in on.  This padlet was used in conjunction with picture books, middle grade books, primary sources, photographs, civil war artifacts, and current NewsELA articles where students begin to see that events in the Civil War repeat throughout our history and in today’s world.  

When students are working in their book clubs, they have an additional padlet that is relative to the book they have chosen. For example, the students reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer,  have this padlet to compliment their reading https://padlet.com/sthelen/chasinglincoln. Students reading Kate Messner’s Ranger In Time: Long Road to Freedom turn to this padlet to find out more about the Underground Railroad https://padlet.com/sthelen/ranger or to see a picture of a horse ferry! After students have read one book selection among the themed book clubs, it is almost a guarantee that they pick up another book choice from the theme. Most times during our book clubs, most students read at least two books and a few read them all. Choosing high-interest books for book clubs is another important move to motivate students to move through text with a great sense of purpose.

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When students read books on the same topic or historical event, it allows them to have “crossover” conversations and online discussions. They begin to learn from each other in ways that I would not be able to reproduce in a whole-class lesson.  After we do a book club based on a topic, students always have a “break” before the next round so they have time to read books of their choosing. However, most times, they ask, “When is our next book club?” Children love to talk about books. Make it legal and make time for them to have those cross-pollinating conversations.

Layering texts involves great consideration across all kinds of literacies, not just the printed word.  We can learn so much from immersing students into carefully chosen, cohesive language experiences.  Read on!

Shelli Thelen is a fifth-grade teacher for the Columbia Public School District in Missouri. After teaching 13 years in Kindergarten, Shelli made the jump up to fifth-grade and has loved reading with her students for the past two years. Shelli Thelen is an adjunct professor at Westminster University in Fulton, Missouri. You can follow Shelli’s classroom on Twitter @thelensthinkers or take a peek at her classroom blog at http://www.thelensthinkers.blogspot.com.