Accessible Text Made Easy

Here’s a conundrum.  It’s pretty common to have a huge range of student need in every classroom.  There are kids who don’t or just barely speak English, kids who might well have come out of the womb reading (and fully understanding) Harry Potter, and a whole huge range of proficiency levels in between.  So it stands to reason that it’s unlikely every student can all read the same texts.  But with a classroom full of soooo many different skill levels, how can we differentiate our texts without spending hours of time searching online for different levels of the same text or recreating the wheel ourselves?  

I would say there’s no need to do that!

As Solution Tree’s Kathy Perez says, “There are multiple routes to reading, and differentiation can lead the way.”  And I would add that there are multiple ways to differentiate.  But how do we differentiate the text itself so all students have access to it? 

While you absolutely could rewrite several different versions of a text, you don’t have to.  There are lots of easy ways to provide accessible text…without changing a thing.  

Expert Tim Shanahan agrees with the idea of not altering texts, when he says “I believe in differentiation, but not if that mainly means teaching kids with different levels of books. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that we would be better off varying the scaffolding provided to different students who are working with the same books.”

That’s what I’d advise–vary the scaffolding we provide; not the texts themselves.

“Start with texts students cannot yet read successfully; then teach them to read those texts so well that people would think those texts were at their instructional levels. Make it the outcome, not the input.”

Tim Shanahan, The Instructional Level Concept Revisited blog post

How is it possible for way-too-hard texts to become accessible text? 

And more to the point, how is it possible to do that without costing teachers hours of time? 

Easy ways to create accessible text for diverse student needs.
Providing accessible text doesn’t have to cost you extra time! Image from Iqoncept.

Read on!

  • Pre-read the text you want to use together in a small group.  This will give kids some familiarity with it and frontload new vocabulary.
  • Read the text together as shared reading.  This is best with a short text or an excerpt that is particularly important.  It can also be read this way in chunks, perhaps over 2-3 days.  Just be sure all students can see the text, whether it’s projected or they all have a copy in hand.
  • Have kids listen to a recording of the text while they follow along with a print copy ahead of when you plan to use it with the class.  I’ve found that using voice to text in a Google doc makes this super easy to do if it’s not something that’s already available on audio.  The key here for multilinguals, though, is to slow down the speed to .75 when they listen so it’s easier for them to process it. (Click here for more ways to support English-language learners).
  • Allow for multiple readings and discussion (whole class or in groups).  Rereading complex text, rather than lightening up on level, is in line with what gurus like Shanahan and the authors of Know Better, Do Better suggest to do.  Multiple readings really helps to build fluency, too.
  • At a literacy conference years ago I learned this strategy from Kylene Beers: Have kids read it with the lens of “what does the author assume I should know?” and underline/circle those parts.  This takes the feeling of shame away from themselves, and “blames” the author instead.  Then you can discuss these things together to clarify.
  • Also courtesy of Kylene Beers is a strategy from her book When Kids Can’t Read.  Pull out a couple of long, complex sentences to dissect as a class.  Many times, it can be confusing to understand what the pronouns are referring to, and the different purposes of commas can be perplexing.  Teaching into this often overlooked complexity can go a long way in helping kids make sense of a text that would be otherwise inaccessible.
  • Use text sets.  These are perfect for academic concepts as well as thematic concepts.  In this way, simpler texts can be introduced first, to build concepts.  Slowly building vocabulary and background knowledge in layers like this is a great way to help kids understand what’s needed in order to take on new and more complex texts on that topic on their own. Think variety, like a couple of picture book read alouds, a video, and an article.

Before you go…

One thing I would not do would be to have small groups of kids read the text together without the support of the teacher.  While in theory the more proficient readers could support the less proficient readers, this usually ends up being a painful experience for the striving readers, and can be frustrating for the stronger readers.  It tends to just spotlight who’s a better reader and who’s not. 

Finally, if you still do want to have different versions of the same text, leverage AI.  Copy and paste the text into it and ask it to lower the grade level or simplify the vocabulary.  You’ll have to play with the prompting a bit, but it’s MAGICAL how quickly AI can spit out different versions of the same text. 

Looking for more ways to save time?  Download my Hidden Time Traps guide, where I share 12 very overlooked places where time gets away from us.  And for 1:1 support with your unique literacy challenges,  reach out for a coaching call!  I’d absolutely love to help you so you can feel more effective and less stressed.

Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 25-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls

Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators! 

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