Shaping Pathways Through Content Area Literacy: Instructional Models for Teaching with Text Sets by Erika Thulin Dawes and Mary Ann Cappiello

Literature-based instruction is having a moment and we’re confident that you’re as excited about that as we are. Not only do we have more access than ever to an array of well-written titles representing diverse perspectives and experiences, but current curriculum conversations are also recognizing the potential children’s literature holds for fostering critical literacy and critical consciousness. Our experiences in working as classroom teachers, reading and curriculum specialists, and now as teacher educators have shown us that teachers are passionate about books and their potential. We know that you are happiest when surrounded by piles of books to share with your students. 

As teacher educators, our work focuses on supporting teachers to design curriculum around multimodal multigenre text sets, groupings of texts, including children’s literature, that are related by topic, theme, or essential question. Collaborations with teachers have led us to develop instructional models for text sets, structures for juxtaposing texts within a content area unit, in order to facilitate student learning and critical thinking. These models help to answer the ‘now what?’ question that often arises after teachers have gathered those piles of books with which they want to teach.

Groupings of texts become vehicles for content area learning, allowing you to meet curriculum standards and district goals, but they are also a means to do so much more. We often talk about teaching with text sets as being both practical and aspirational. When you teach with multiple texts you build a structure to differentiate learning, engage a wider range of learners, and provide opportunities for students to grapple with multiple perspectives. Text sets also allow you to meet your readers where they are, offering texts that are a good match for their reading interests and abilities.

As readers of the Nerdy Book Club Blog, you likely have a range of strategies for gathering books to share with your students. When planning curriculum for language arts, science, social studies, and math, we think about how to organize and sequence texts. In a text set approach, the order in which students experience the texts is key to how they understand and view the topic or theme you are exploring with them. We consider:

  • How do the texts relate? How are they ‘talking’ to one another?
  • What subtopics of a topic are represented in each text?
  • What perspectives are represented by the texts? What or who might be missing?
  • Which texts connect with one another and are ideal to compare?
  • Which texts contradict one another and are ideal to contrast?

Text Set Instructional Models

Across a unit of study, we decide which texts can serve as: scaffolds, to introduce key ideas and increase engagement; immersion texts, to deeply explore the topic or theme; or extension texts, to take things a step further or to appeal to particular readers. The instructional models that we have developed as a means for organizing students’ experiences with texts across a unit of study are metaphors for the kinds of critical thinking that they can foster. The models include:

The Duet Model:

Duets can be sung, performed on instruments, or even danced, and they encompass all moods and types of music. A Duet text set pairs two texts together to compare and contrast their content, theme, or perspective.

Duet Example: Exploring Native American Activism and Agency

In this example, the Duet model is used to explore Native American activism and agency. The order in which the two books are read depends on what makes sense for your students. You can read We are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know, a nonfiction picture book, to get an overview of U.S. laws and policy and Native American activism and agency from 1871 to the present, and then zoom in on contemporary clean water activism with the fictional We are Water Protectors. Or, you could start with the specific example of clean water activism and then move to the historical overview. Or, you could divide the class to explore each book in small groups, and then come together to discuss. Only you know what makes the most sense for your students. Each book points to important information and understandings in the other.

The Sunburst Model:

Think of a simple drawing of the sun, a circle with rays emanating from the center. Our Sunburst model has this sun as its metaphorical origin. One text is the core text, it takes the place of the sun in that drawing. Additional multigenre multimodal texts become the rays and support students to understand the center core text. These texts enhance, extend, or might even challenge the core text. This model is often adopted by teachers who have a required text or textbook in order to bring multiple voices and perspectives into their curriculum.

Sunburst Example: Exploring the Life of Actress Anna May Wong

In this example, the Sunburst model is used to explore the activism of early 20th century Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong. At the core of this text set is Paula Yoo’s illustrated picture book biography Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story. The other texts, silent film footage of Wong’s 1936 visit to China, photographic portraits of Wong, and a contemporary tribute to Wong from actress Lucy Liu, help to animate Wong and situate her in history. You might use the Lucy Liu clip and historic photographs as scaffolds, introducing Wong and building inquiry. The silent film footage of Wong in China serves as a valuable extension  after reading the book, emphasizing an important turning point in the actress’s life and work. 

Tree Ring Model:

Imagine a piece of wood sliced off a freshly fallen tree trunk. Look at the concentric circles emanating from the center that reveal the age of the wood. Using the concentric circles as the metaphor, the Tree Ring model has students reading a common core text. After accessing the core text, the students then move onto another concentric layer to read / investigate the sources used by the author to create the text. Finally, students move to the outer concentric layers, experiencing additional texts that are topically related. The focus in this model is on author and illustrator processes; examining the sources and choices made by the author and/or illustrator supports students to create their own texts.

Tree Ring Example: Exploring the Writing of Giant Squid

In this example, the Tree Ring model is used to examine the author’s and illustrator’s processes. After reading Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, students investigate the sources that Fleming lists in the back matter and additional information provided on her blog. To learn more about the collaborative process of creating this book, students can watch an interview in which Eric Rohmann describes the details of illustrating this nonfiction book. Finally, students explore additional texts, such as marine biologist Edith Widder’s TED talk about capturing the first film footage of a giant squid, images and information on the Smithsonian website, and an National Public Radio podcast, “Science Friday.” Students can use what they have learned about composing and illustrating nonfiction texts to create their own picture book about a marine animal.

Solar System Model

In the Solar System model, like the solar system itself, the texts (like planets) move around a central topic, concept, theme, genre, or essential question (the center of gravity). Exploring a range of multimodal multigenre texts offers a powerful way to explore perspectives, author and illustrator choices, and to differentiate reading experiences while appealing to individual interests and needs. Sometimes teachers use the solar system model for Literature Circles and sometimes teachers choose to have students read multiple texts from the model.

Solar System Example: Exploring Biographies of Architects

In this example, the Solar System model is used within a unit on geometry and design to promote architecture as an art form, describing architects as artists with dreams and visions of how to create beautiful and functional spaces. Students explore a  collection of picture book biographies of artists, including Philip Freelon, Maya Lin, Zaha Hadid, Antoni Gaudi, and Frank Lloyd. Students compare and contrast the life stories in these books considering: how childhood interests led to careers, challenges and achievements, and how these architects use distinctive artistic elements in their designs.

Mountain Model

The Mountain model serves as a metaphor for the text explorations involved in a research project. It represents the process required to move from a broad range of texts to identifying a specific question and then seeking texts that relate more specifically, to the satisfaction of the new learning that results. This model is often employed at the end of a unit, when students synthesize their learning, creating their own multimodal, multigenre texts.

Mountain Model Example: Exploring the American Revolution

In this example, the Tree Ring model is used to explore the American Revolution with an emphasis on perspectives and evidence. Initially, students read Steve Sheinkin’s King George, What Was His Problem? for an overview of the war, as well as various Solar System text sets on different perspectives. As students gain more information, they are able to read increasingly more complex and specific texts. Students next explore an increasingly more specific set of texts on a topic of their choices. Finally, students investigate available primary source documents and artifacts on their topics.   

Instructional Models in Your Classroom

Often, teachers use a series of instructional models in combination with one another over the course of a unit, as you see in the above Mountain model. Making deliberate choices about how to employ and sequence the texts you have identified for a text set elevates your curriculum design and provides for deeper learning. Text sets also allow you to bring more student choice and interest into your reading across content areas, building students’ repertoires as individual readers while simultaneously building a reading community as students share their learning with one another.

We hope that these models offer you new ways to think about how you can use a multimodal multigenre text set in your classroom, including compelling children’s, middle grade, and young adults books alongside a range of other text types across the curriculum and across the school day.

Looking for More?

  • Our co-authored blog, with Grace Enriquez, Katie Cunningham, and Denise Davila,  The Classroom Bookshelf hosted by School Library Journal, features text sets and suggests instructional models.

You can reach us at and Find us on Twitter @ErikaDawes and @MA_Cappiello