Disciplinary Literacy Perspective on Text Sets

In my last two posts, I sketched the popularity and emergence of research on text sets, and outlined the Quad Text Set (QTS) framework aimed at helping students reading more complex texts. In this post, I’ll discuss text set framework called Project READI, whose goal is to scaffold students’ use of literary heuristics in service of developing sophisticated literary interpretation. 

You might wonder: do those things overlap?  Can’t students both read complex texts and develop more sophisticated literary interpretations? Of course they can—but there are some meaningful distinctions. The QTS framework doesn’t have a uniquely literary aspect to it: it’s designed to work in ELA, science, and social studies. Project READI’s framework, on the other hand, focuses directly on literary interpretation, and how to develop it in students who are often mystified by the habits of reading literature.  So for ELA teachers focused directly on increasing volume of reading complex texts of any type, the QTS model would be ideal, and for those focused more directly on the practice of literary interpretation, the Project READI model would be ideal.

The description and quotes I provide here come from Sarah Levine and colleagues’ excellent book chapter, “A Design Architecture for Engaging Middle and High School Students in Epistemic Practices of Literary Interpretation”(Chapter 6 in this book).  In it, Dr. Levine describes the importance of gateway texts and activities and cultural data sets as the foundation of an ELA text set.  

Gateway Texts and Activities

Much like the QTS’s accessible texts, the READI model proposes that teachers begin with gateway activities, in which the teacher designs “brief scenarios, surveys, or other engaging questions that use everyday settings and language to represent a simplified version of those tensions or conflicts” (Levine et al., 2018, p. 113). The QTS’s accessible texts focus more on providing background content knowledge, while the ELA-specific READI model suggests that gateway activities can focus less on that knowledge and more directly aim at unpacking the literary tensions which will be evident in the unit.

Cultural Data Sets 

After engaging students with these gateway activities, the students then read additional texts drawn from what disciplinary literacy scholar Dr. Carol Lee has called “cultural data sets”, which include both pop culture texts like song lyrics or advertisements as well as accessible literary texts. These are chosen not for knowledge development, but to offer different perspectives on the central literary tension (e.g. coming of age, social conformity, family dynamics). As students experience these cultural data sets, the teacher also guides them in the use of literary heuristics, such as noting affect-laden language or looking for irony (or perhaps using what Beers and Probst call “signposts”).  In this way, the texts are the vehicles of the development of increasingly sophisticated literary understandings. 

The Goal: Literary Heuristics and Analysis

Levine and colleagues refer to “focal texts” as the culminating texts of the text set—including texts like The House on Mango Street or The Joy Luck Club but also short stories or particularly complex poems.  The QTS framework has a similar aspirational text at the end (it’s called the “target text”), but in the QTS, the target text is chosen for its linguistic or knowledge-building complexity. In the READI model, the focal text is the big chance for students to apply the heuristics they were introduced to while engaging with the cultural data sets.  It’s also a chance for students to develop their writing skills as they try to find evidence in the focal text to support their interpretation. 

Contrasting Perspectives: QTS and READI

Certainly these two perspectives do share similarities—designing to engage even reluctant students, careful sequence of scaffolding, and an aspirational text that exemplifies the framework’s goals. The two frameworks, however, differ in their goals (complex texts vs literary interpretation). Because their ultimate goals are different, the selection of the texts differs accordingly. 

In my next blog post, I’ll outline a third type of text set framework, which focuses on critical literacy perspectives. Then, in my last post, I’ll share an example of what a text set might look like that combines the frameworks to work toward the goals of all three perspectives.