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Why Teach with Text Sets?

Posted by admin on Mar 2, 2021 11:04:44 AM

"Teaching with text sets is not a luxury. It’s a possibility. It’s an approach to student-centered teaching that allows you to cover what you need to cover while engaging students in perspective taking and sense making. Because of that, it is both practical and aspirational."


In this Introduction to the forthcoming book, Text Sets in Action, the authors, Mary Ann Cappiello and Erika Thulin Dawes, tell us their "origin stories" that led them to write a book about how to successfully use text sets to carve a pathway through content area literacy. They show us how using text sets in instruction is both aspirational and practical in helping to create structures and contexts in which required learning can take place while going beyond what is merely required. They show us how this work allows for an integrated curriculum that will lead to working smarter, taking advantage of students’ interests, and customizing a curriculum that takes advantage of contemporary issues, values, and contexts. Take a look!

Text Sets and Our Classrooms

Mary Ann's Story

Over twenty years ago, at the end of my second year of teaching, after a day filled with juggling all the things an eighth-grade language arts teacher juggles—classroom discussions and debates, stacks of writing (hey, it was the 1990s so there really were stacks of paper on my desk!), competing personalities—I was driving into New York City to discuss the young adult historical fiction I was reading as part of an independent study with my graduate advisor. While I could pretend that this independent study was intended to support my students’ reading interests and the cross-curricular work I was doing on my team, the reality was, it was entirely selfish. I love the genre!

As I drove, I started trying to imagine away the modern city, to try and see what it might have looked like during the British occupation during the American Revolution. Then, an epiphany! I was going to research and write a young adult historical novel set in the Hudson Valley during that time. In the forty minutes or so that it took to get from my classroom to Teachers College, I decided to become an author. At the end of our meeting, the remarkable Ruth Vinz approved my decision. The research and writing of a young adult historical novel could supplant the traditional master’s thesis.

Where did this audacity come from? I have no idea, really. From sixth grade through college I kept an almost daily journal and wrote a lot of academic papers. When I spent four years working at the U.S. House of Representatives, I learned how to write in the voice of someone else and how to quickly turn around short speeches, statements, and letters. I knew the satisfaction of revision, when the right words fall into place. But I never, ever, ever thought of myself as an “author,” let alone a fiction writer. Not ever.

My initial graduate program for certification required a six-credit course, The Teaching of Writing, with four credits of writing workshop and two credits of lecture with Lucy Calkins. I wrote a personal narrative that I can’t remember (that’s how good it was) and some bad poetry. Two big ideas stuck: kids need to be taught the process of writing, and that to be a teacher of writing, I had to write. But it took until that afternoon’s drive for me to claim my writing identity. What next? I spent the next two years researching and writing. To get started, I mined the author’s notes in the historical novels to learn more about the research process. I went to a local historic home connected to the American Revolution and discovered that the family had a daughter born in 1765 who would have been coming of age during the war. Voilà! I had a protagonist. The nearby Rockefeller archives held most of the family papers, from correspondence to accounts to recipes. Voilà! I could do primary source research on my way home from school. I began to read books about the war, books about the lives of girls and women at the time, and books about food and clothing. I went to museums and studied furniture and practiced finding the language to describe everyday objects and artifacts from the eighteenth century. I took open-hearth cooking lessons, and soon starting reenacting as my protagonist, Ann Van Cortlandt, during winter holiday tours of her family home. I made timelines and took notes on color-coded index cards. My then-boyfriend-now-husband traveled with me to Albany, searching for Ann’s grave on his hands and knees on a damp, cold February morning.

So, what does all of this have to do with teaching with text sets? Everything. In The Power of Play, Daniel Elkind (2007) reminds us that “sharing our passions, even by example, is far different from teaching children academic skills or giving them lessons. It amounts to revealing ourselves as people, the things we love to do when we have free time” (185). Throughout my research process, I shared the highs and lows with my eighth graders. I brought my life’s passion into the classroom, modeling curiosity and deferred gratification, how one research question can lead to another and how some research questions don’t always get answered.

But more than anything, my research on the eighteenth century taught me how to learn. Studying eighteenth-century furniture, Enlightenment philosophy, portraiture, women’s roles in the social and economic structures of Colonial America, and specific battles of the American Revolution all helped me to understand and recreate that world in my imagination. Looking at objects led me to better understand culture and power in the eighteenth century. Everything was interconnected, and each line of study shone light on the other. From this experience, I realized that we learn best when we use all of our senses. Authentic learning is multimodal.

Knowing this, I knew that I had to transform my teaching. The world is infinitely interesting. School should be, too. The answer wasn’t having my students take open-hearth cooking lessons and teaching about portraiture. My passions were not my students’ passions. How could I honor theirs? As an English language arts teacher, I was responsible for supporting their literacy learning. What role did music, art, objects, and artifacts have to play in the pursuit of that literacy learning, critical thinking, and creativity?

First, I provided more space and time for individualized research and student decision making about how they demonstrated their learning, influenced by Tom Romano’s multigenre research portfolios. But I was not in a school district where individualized explorations could replace the curriculum; nor did I want that. There is tremendous power in whole-class explorations of topics, concepts, and themes. I also made my curriculum more multimodal and multigenre and intentionally positioned my students to “read” a range of text types through which they would create meaning. The meaning was not in any one text. The meaning making was within each and every student. This was the origin of my approach to teaching with text sets.

As educators, we are so busy maximizing the moment and planning our next steps that we rarely take the time to look back and consider how our previous decisions, sometimes made by the seat of our pants, impact our teaching lives in permanent ways. Who would I be as a teacher today if I had not impulsively asked my advisor if I could research and write a historical novel? I had no idea my concepts of teaching and learning would be transformed by that seemingly selfish request to build my historical imagination.

As you read this book, I hope that you think about your passions and how they can make their way into your classroom. You can’t love everything you teach, but what you do love can certainly enhance your teaching. How can your passions or what you have learned from them help you design curriculum?

This book will also help you to move your students into the center of the meaning making, by helping you construct curricular contexts ripe for inquiry and exploration through reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, moving, and creating with multimodal, multigenre text sets.

And that young adult historical fiction I wrote? It was pretty terrible. A rookie’s first attempts at a novel. But now that this book is written, perhaps it’s time to find those files on my computer.

Erika’s Story

I began my teaching journey as a first-grade classroom teacher. A lifelong avid reader, I couldn’t imagine teaching without a classroom full of books. Although I was required by the district to use a basal reader, I found every opportunity to bring authentic literature to my students, reading aloud multiple times a day and keeping a well-stocked classroom library. My teacher preparation program had emphasized the power of a thematic, literature-based curriculum, so I sought to enrich my social studies and science instruction with children’s books—I made endless trips to the public library and purchased additional titles for the classroom using a portion of my salary. It was easy to see the appeal and power of well-written books and the potential that rich discussion of these books held for extending my students’ understanding and inspiring new questions.

One of my fondest memories of these teaching years took place during a unit of study on animal behavior. I had visited a book warehouse sale and had happened on dozens of nonfiction books about animals available for sale for only a few dollars each. I purchased a boxful and brought them into the classroom. My students were, of course, curious about the box. I called them over to our meeting area and upended the box on the rug. We spent the next hour and half, seated on the rug, surrounded by these fascinating books. The students browsed book after book, reading the photographs and text as best they could, and chattering excitedly about what they were discovering and learning. It was a magical stretch of time; we were transported by those books, by wonder at the natural world, and by the joy of curiosity and inquiry. Browsing this collection of nonfiction books, they learned more about animals than a single textbook could ever begin to teach them.

During my first years of teaching, I signed up for a summer course at the University of New Hampshire’s Reading and Writing Program. This was a transformative experience. The program, established by Thomas Newkirk, emphasized a workshop approach to writing and reading, describing the processes that writers undertake as they compose as well as the relationship between reading and writing. This program both supported my personal growth as a reader and writer and developed my strategies for fostering reading and writing growth in the classroom. Participating in this community of learners, writers, and teachers (including Susan Stires, Mary Ellen Giaccobe, Linda Rief, Tom Newkirk, and Donald Graves himself) was exhilarating. I signed up for two more summers! The ideas I experienced in these summer sessions were immediately applicable during the school year. I implemented a writing workshop structure and watched my students develop as writers rapidly because this approach honored their voices and their experiences. Choice within reading workshop supported equally rapid growth in reading; selecting their own texts increased motivation and engagement, and consequently achievement. Read-alouds and author studies became forums for us to discuss authors’ craft and reading strategies. During this time, I was also introduced to the work of Tom Romano and became interested in his multigenre research approach—sound familiar? This approach aligned with the ways that I was using texts with my first- grade students, in a thematic model for content learning.

After completing my master’s degree, I was eager to keep learning. With a desire to remain immersed in literature-based instruction and workshop approach, I began a doctoral program at Teachers College. The core course for the program was taught by four faculty with different areas of expertise, including special education, gifted education, and curriculum, and with different theoretical lenses, including social constructivism and critical theory. Co-constructing the learning experience, these four professors used readings in a way that I had not experienced before in all my years of school. For each topic addressed in the course, we were asked to read a range of texts representing a variety of stances on and explorations of the topic. Provided with these groupings of texts (text sets), I learned how to read critically across the texts, considering, critiquing, and attempting to synthesize a range of perspectives. Experiencing text sets as a learner firmly convinced me of the potential of this approach to transform teaching and learning. 

From that point on, in my work as a literacy supervisor then teacher educator, I have coached teachers to use groupings of texts to support student growth in reading, writing, and thinking. Whether this takes the form of author studies, literature circles, genre studies, content-area study, or clusters of course readings, I have seen again and again how the use of multiple texts leads us to think more deeply, to consider more carefully, to empathize more fully, and to take action more deliberately.

Throughout this book, we invite you to consider how teaching with carefully curated collections of multigenre and multimodal texts sets can transform the learning experience for you and your students. The many teachers we have worked with have each approached teaching with text sets from different starting points and from different teaching contexts. We are excited to share their stories with you, and we are confident that the text sets examples in this book will serve as invitations to you and your students.

Teaching with Text Sets Is Both Practical and Aspirational

By hearing our text set “origin stories,” you may feel excited to get started or to transition your current work to a deeper level of multigenre and multimodal learning and, at the same time, concerned that doing so is a luxury of time and energy you don’t have.

Teaching with text sets is not a luxury. It’s a possibility. It’s an approach to student-centered teaching that allows you to cover what you need to cover while engaging students in perspective taking and sense making. Because of that, it is both practical and aspirational.

Teaching with text sets is practical because text sets allow you to do what you’re already expected to do. Text sets create structures and contexts in which required learning can take place. It is also aspirational because a text set approach takes you and your students beyond what is merely required and allows you to integrate curriculum to work smarter, to take advantage of students’ interests, and to customize curriculum to take advantage of contemporary issues, values, and contexts.

It’s Practical


Everyone needs to teach to the standards for which they are responsible. We get that. We live in an era of accountability. But we have also learned that when standards are aligned in a progression, such as the Next Generation Science Standards or the Common Core ELA Standards, teams of teachers can plan instruction that builds on prior learning experiences and emphasizes critical thinking and conceptual understanding. This is the exciting byproduct of well-written standards. We always consider content standards in science and social studies as the floor, not the ceiling. They are the foundation of what we need to cover, but they do not limit us from using additional content or concepts to frame our instruction, capture student interest, and improve student learning. Teaching with text sets allows you to meet your state and local standards for content and literacy and allows for an integrated approach whenever possible. A teaching-with-text-sets approach also encourages teachers to use standards from one content area to frame the standards in another content area. For example, how can your social studies standards provide a real-world, local context for your science standards? When you design your curriculum with the standards as the foundation, you don’t need to focus on test preparation, since your students are demonstrating that they are meeting standards on an ongoing basis.


Over the past two decades, a body of cognitive science research has demonstrated the strong connection between reading comprehension and knowledge. The more students know about a topic, the stronger their comprehension of texts about that topic, and the stronger chance that what they read and comprehend deepen their knowledge of that topic. Much of what students comprehend in a print text is based on their prior knowledge of the content vocabulary and text structure. By design, text sets build prior knowledge on a topic and utilize a range of text structures across different genres and modalities. Audio, video, and visual texts can all be harnessed to introduce topics, prompt inquiry, and build knowledge of content and vocabulary that students can then carry into their reading of print texts of varying levels of complexity and sophistication. By reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing, students incorporate vocabulary and knowledge into their receptive and expressive language.


Practitioners of each discipline use language in ways that reflect the key skills and strategies of the disciplinary area. For example, historians focus on perspective and representation, while scientists focus on inquiry and evidence. When students use text sets from a range of disciplinary areas, they become more fluent in the different ways of reading, writing, speaking, and listening embedded in the disciplines. A focus on literacy within and across the content areas builds student language competencies as well as their content knowledge.


Teaching with text sets allows for student learning at a deeper level. When you use this approach, students develop and use critical thinking skills with regularity, as they are constantly negotiating meaning across texts that may represent different information and points of view. When students are mentored into critical thinking, evidence-based thinking can begin to become the norm. A text set approach becomes a force multiplier for critical thinking, as students transfer those thinking skills to each new unit and context. Therefore, with text sets, students are thinking deeply while you are covering what you need to cover.


Teaching with text sets does ask you to take time to plan. You need to think carefully about what you are teaching, why you are teaching it (beyond “I have to”), and what else about this topic, concept, skill, theme, or strategy is compelling to your students. This allows you to design or revise a more effectively student-centered unit of study. Careful selection and juxtaposition of texts allow you to continue to consider what you are teaching and why, what texts optimize that learning, and what ongoing classroom structures and processes allow students to engage deeply. Finding and locating texts for a text set may feel daunting if you are just beginning to use this approach. Ideally, it is done by a team of teachers, with the support of a school or public librarian. The unit begins with structures set up in advance and an end learning product in mind. Thus, the time you take to plan in advance saves you time during the unit of study, so that you can focus your time and energy observing students and revising instruction to support them. The focus is on the learning, not the planning. Plus, once you’ve designed a text set for a particular unit, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each year. You can add or subtract texts or use them in different combinations for different goals, focusing again on taking student learning to a deeper level.

It’s Aspirational


Our contemporary lives are full of texts of all kinds—we are surrounded by media messages, advertisements, and public commentary. Our democracy depends on our abilities to sift through, sort out, and critique this mass of information in order to take action in our lives. When we bring this same experience into the classroom by using text sets, we are able to hone our students’ abilities to read across texts, to consider multiple perspectives, and to begin to synthesize and draw conclusions. Text sets by nature represent multiple perspectives on a theme or a topic. As students read across texts, they engage in critical literacy practices, developing an understanding that all texts are ideological; each text represents the author’s worldview. When we use more than one text about the same theme or topic, students under-stand that there are multiple angles to consider.


Teaching with text sets repositions the teaching–learning relationship. When teachers and students work together to compare the content, structures, and formats of related texts across different genres and modalities, they engage in the co-construction of new knowledge about the topic/ theme of study. Together they generate new ideas inspired by and informed by the texts that they are experiencing. If you are like us, you became a teacher because you love learning new things—teaching with text sets sustains the excitement and joy of learning alongside your students.


When teaching with text sets, both you and your students have the opportunity to engage in interesting explorations designed to answer important questions. You learn together and model engagement and enthusiasm for one another. This enthusiasm serves as a positive contagion and force multiplier that maintains a level of engagement that allows everyone to dig in deeper as the work gets more complex. Encouraging students to ask real-world questions and investigate the answers honors their experiences as learners and makes the curriculum relevant and responsive.


As students engage with multiple texts, they have the opportunity to experience multiple models (in various modalities and genres) that introduce possibilities for their own work as authors, artists, and makers. After a deep dive into these texts, students can be encouraged to identify the modality and genre that is best suited to express their learning. We are always amazed at what students can write and make when they have choices for how they will express themselves.

To learn more about how to teach with text sets, preorder your copy of Text Sets in Action today. 


About the authors

Cappiello.MMary Ann Cappiello is a former English Language Arts and Humanities teacher and middle grade curriculum facilitator for language arts and social studies and is currently a Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University. She is co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.


Dawes photo4Erika Thulin Dawes is Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University where she strives to equip teachers with a passion for children’s literature and a wealth of creative teaching strategies. She has worked as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, and a literacy supervisor. Erika is co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.




Topics: Literacy, Reading, Writing, Middle School, Elementary