Text Sets: What and Why
Text sets are increasingly popular resources for teachers. Sites like NewsELA, CommonLit, the Library of Congress and ReadWorks offer teachers pre-made text sets targeted at various grade levels. State departments of education, such as Louisiana, Iowa, and Connecticut offer step-by-step instructions for text set construction. Teacher journal articles describe how to use text sets both across disciplines, but also in specific disciplines and grade levels such as controversial topics in elementary social studies, middle school ecology, and challenging heteronormativity in high school English. Certainly, teachers have numerous examples of text sets to choose from.
Having resources, though, is not the same as organizing quality literacy and content instruction. Many of the state guides above prescribe simple steps such as “Choose the content, choose the texts, and consider the order of the texts”. Definition of the content, goals, and order of the texts, however, is devilishly tricky—and requires a deep understanding of the purposes and techniques of literacy and content instruction.
In this blog post series, I’ll begin here by defining text sets and explaining why they’re increasingly important to researchers and teachers. The next three posts will sketch text sets guided by each of three perspectives on literacy: cognitive, disciplinary, and critical literacy. In the final post, I’ll draw each perspective together and consider how each offers unique insights into text set construction.
What is a text set?
The term itself has a common-sense definition: a collection of texts organized into a set. The ubiquity of this term and the many resources show how accessible the term is across grade levels, school contexts, and content areas. Kindergarten and 12th grade teachers alike can envision collections of texts for their classrooms.
What, though, is a “text”? Text sets on popular websites like NewsELA are mostly articles adapted from newspapers. Some additional sites include videos, maps, photographs, or even apps as their texts. Specific content areas might add additional types: history text sets might include historical artifacts or buildings as texts, while science text sets might include complex graphs or data displays. It’s clear, through these examples, that there’s no one definition of “text”, rather, but that the genre and modality of the texts are part of the process of creating the text set.
What, then, is a “set”? Most definitions are quite vague on this: they simply define texts that have any content connection. A text set might be about a historical figure, a scientific concept, a literary theme, a current event, or a sociological phenomenon. Some early articles merely considered books about trains or books with animal narrators to be text sets. With these vague guidelines, teachers might well feel adrift in creating meaningful text sets for their instructional goals.
Why should teachers consider text sets?
Most research on reading comprehension up until the 1990s focused on single texts and how readers learned to comprehend a specific text (e.g. Kintsch, 1998). However, in the early 2000s, cognitive scientists began to recognize that the most meaningful real-world reading tasks rarely required students to merely understand one text—readers often have to juggle multiple perspectives to solve complex problems in the real world (see Goldman, 2004 for a deeper dive into that). The recent explosion of
online disinformation has also amplified the importance of understanding how readers not only comprehend a text, but also evaluate its source and its quality. Unsurprisingly, research has documents how middle school, high school, and college students struggle to evaluate source quality (see McGrew et al., 2018). These cognitive science research findings demonstrate the importance of students not just learning to comprehend a single text, but to synthesize information across sources and evaluate sources’ quality and relevance.
From another perspective, text sets are crucial to exposing students to multiple perspectives on a topic. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s well-known TED talk about the dangers of a single story warns readers not to be lured into superficial single-story understandings about a culture or country. Teachers, then, are responsible to construct text sets that expose the limitations of single stories and invite students into complex understandings of culture, identity, cultural norms, and social biases.
In the next posts, I’ll dive deeper into the cognitive, disciplinary, and critical views of text sets, and show what each perspective has to offer. In all, the focus will be not just on giving examples of text sets, but analyzing the purpose and aims of different text sets and how they can build students’ cognitive reading abilities, literary interpretation skills, and critical mindsets to break down power and injustice.