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Reading Complex Texts to Build Skills

By Gordon Mosher, Program Manager, AVID Western Division, AVID Center

Just as a bodybuilder only builds muscle when lifting weights, a reader only builds ability to understand complex texts when reading complex material.  One of our AVID Staff Developers from Australia, Dr. William DeJean, demonstrated this idea during a recent AVID training in San Diego for Summer Institute Staff Developers.  “Learning to read challenging text is similar to undergoing physical therapy.  Initially, such therapy is often painful and exhausting, and it’s tempting to cheat on the exercises a bit” (Shanahan, Fisher, & Frey, 2012, p. 62).  In order to increase our students’ abilities to comprehend college-level reading material, we must expose them to rigorous text early.  By doing so, we can develop a set of skills for students to apply whenever they are challenged by a text.

“A landmark study published by ACT in 2006, Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading, identified facility with reading complex texts as the gatekeeper skill for reaching the reading benchmark on the standardized ACT test” (Varlas, 2012, p. 1).  Setting a purpose for reading is the teacher’s job.  We need to ask, “Do I want students to learn to read, to read to learn, or both?”  “What about this text or its content do I want students to comprehend?” (Reeves, 2011, p. 57).  Students need to see the relevance of the learning reflected in the posted objective.  The more specific that our learning objectives are for students, the easier it becomes for them to understand the purpose of the lesson.

Middle school and high school students need to develop strategies for reading more rigorous material.  They should be challenged by the reading that is assigned in their classes.  However, to refer back to my example of the bodybuilder, be mindful not to start with too heavy a weight!  “Within short, complex texts, students are able to build stamina and habits of mind, and the teacher can keep pushing them back into the text and providing support to the level where the skills will transfer to their own reading” (Varlas, 2012, p. 7).

AVID has multiple resources for teachers that build students’ abilities to read complex materials, such as: Critical Reading: Deep Reading Strategies for Expository Texts Teacher Guide, Middle Level Writing with Integrated Reading and Oral Language Teacher Guide, High School Writing Teacher Guide, AVID Weekly, and The Write Path English Language Arts: Exploring Texts with Strategic Reading Teacher Guide.


Gordon Mosher is a Program Manager in AVID’s Western Division.  He oversees the AVID College Readiness System in the states of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Montana.  Before coming to AVID, Gordon was the Director of Advanced Placement Incentives, and AVID District Director for Yuma Union High School District #70 in Yuma, Arizona.  A former Earth, Environmental Science, and AVID Elective Teacher, Gordon currently resides in Denver, Colorado with his wife, Alycia, and children, Jaxon and Lilian.



Reeves, A. R. (2011). Where Great Teaching Begins: Planning for Student Thinking and Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Shanahan, T., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). The Challenge of Challenging Text. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 58-62.

Varlas, L. (2012). It’s Complicated: Common Core State Standards Focus on Text Complexity. Education Update, 54(4), 1-7.

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