Day 1 Discussion: Productive Struggle with Complex Text with Anita Kerr!

Good morning and welcome to the first day of our discussion on "Productive Struggle with Complex Text" with Anita Kerr!  

I normally think of math when I hear about productive struggle, but Anita will show us how we can use it to help our students develop and "flex" their reading muscles for success in passing high school equivalency tests, post-secondary education, and reading for life.

We are blessed to have adult education language arts expert Anita Kerr from Western Illinois University leading the discussion today, tomorrow, and Thursday.  Anita has been working in the field of adult education since 2001 as a teacher, coordinator, and trainer. In her current role, Anita serves as an educational training specialist focusing on Language Arts. She designs and conducts professional development for Illinois adult educators as part of the Illinois Professional Development Network. She is an experienced ABE/ASE and ESL instructor and has taught composition and literature at the college level.  If you would like to continue the discussion with Anita after our three days of discussion, she can be reached at:

Each day will have a specific focus:

Tuesday, February 25 - How does the productive struggle with complex text strategy work?

Wednesday, February 26 - How can we use productive struggle with complex text in leveled and multi-level classes?

Thursday, February 27 - What resources can be used to teach productive struggle with complex text?


Thank you in advance for your questions and comments!
Anita, thank you so much for being here!  Please tell us about the productive struggle with complex text strategy! 
Steve Schmidt
Moderator, LINCS Reading and Writing COP


Good morning! I am excited to kick off our discussion about productive struggle! It is our job as adult educators to present students with complex texts and to teach them strategies to engage successfully with those texts. Students will encounter such complex texts on HSE and standardized exams, and in college classrooms, training programs, and the workplace; therefore, we are obligated to prepare them appropriately. But, you may ask, what about all the roadblocks to success when teaching complex text, including students’ lack of appropriate reading strategies, insufficient reading stamina, memories of past failures, or sheer disinterest in reading?

One helpful strategy is to create a classroom environment where productive struggle is allowed and encouraged. Think of productive struggle as desirable difficulty – effortful learning – that causes students to stretch. Productive struggle requires students have some time to work independently before explanation or answers are provided. It means students do much of the intellectual heavy lifting when reading a complex text, and we provide scaffolds and support only when needed.

Applying this strategy will require a shift in mindset for both students and teachers. Though we as educators may associate struggle with growth and learning, our students likely think of struggle as negative and try to avoid it. Teaching students to embrace productive struggle means helping them understand that real learning is not about getting the right answer. It’s about the process of acquiring skills and knowledge that can then be applied to every future question, situation, and text they encounter. And for teachers, creating an environment of productive struggle means:

  • selecting and presenting texts at an appropriate level of challenge for students,

  • allowing students to wrestle with a text instead of interpreting it for them,

  • not stepping in too quickly but instead asking focused questions that help narrow students’ attention,

  • and ultimately bringing strategy, not salvation, to our students – we need to teach process and skills, not just a right answer.

So, think of your classroom environment. Is productive struggle actively encouraged and fostered? If so, what strategies do you use to make this happen? If productive struggle is not yet common in your classroom, think about what you could do to produce it. What could you change to encourage students to embrace productive struggle? And what could you do differently when you plan and teach?

I look forward to hearing your responses and ideas!


When students are frustrated by complex text, we can create an environment of productive struggle for them by not giving them the answer but by asking targeted questions that narrow students' focus. For example, if a student is trying to answer a multiple choice question about central idea of the text, we can ask, "Where in the text do you think we should look to find central or main idea?" The student may indicate the opening paragraph, so we can turn there with them and ask if they can identify a specific sentence that contains the main idea. 

And if a student is struggling to answer a question and seems to have no idea where to look, give them a paragraph range rather than making them search the entire text. For instance, you could say, "Check in paragraphs 4 & 5 for information related to that question about author's purpose." We are narrowing the focus, but we are still asking the student to do the work of reading and analyzing. (For this reason, it's a good idea to number the paragraphs of any complex text used in class.)

What other strategies do we think would effectively create productive struggle in our classrooms?


Thanks for sharing this interesting information. I agree we need to create a classroom where rigor is encouraged through productive struggles. I am curious how to frame this with students. Do you recommend a discussion preparing students for this productive struggle? What do you suggest in the way of preparation and support for our adult ed students who may have limited success with this type of academic struggle?



Hi Sarah! What an important question, as we certainly don't want to create an environment that feels hostile to students, or that feels as if we are setting them up to fail. I firmly believe we should discuss what productive struggle is and why it's important. We can express our compassion for their past difficulties at the same time we explain why we are using a technique that allows them to struggle a bit on their own. Perhaps if we are implementing this strategy for the first time, we can provide plenty of supports - pre-taught vocabulary, graphic organizers, partner work. It is not the intent to throw students into the deep end of the pool right away; we can slowly introduce the concept of productive struggle, keeping many of our usual scaffold and supports in place until we sense students are ready for more challenge.

A good rule of thumb is be sensitive to student needs - both when they need support and when they need challenge! Thanks!

Hi Anita, Thank you for shairng your expertise with us here on LINCS. This is such an important topic. I will confess that in the past it was common for me to explain texts to students instead of giving them the space and the support to grapple with text on their own. Encountering Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms by  Schoenbach, Greenleaf and Murphy opened my eyes to the value of productive struggle.

I'm looking forward to learning how you and other teachers effectively scaffold instruction to support learners to struggle with complex text productively.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Thank you, Susan, for the book suggestion that inspired you. I too find that my natural inclination is to show & tell, as opposed to guide & direct. Students need to become learners, not just get the correct answers, and productive struggle can help them become true learners. 

Good Afternoon Anita and Others!

Anita, Thank you for leading this discussion!  I have not heard the phrase, "productive struggles" previously.  However, it makes such sense to us as educators.  I would use this term with my students.  It is one more way to support them and let them know that learning is an active process and we rarely learn anything that we don't struggle with, at least a little.

I believe that modeling the process of productive struggle through a think-aloud would be productive.  Explicit modeling of how to struggle through (and be successful with!) a difficult passage, and talk students through the process would be very beneficial.

I'm looking forward to others' comments and the continued discussion tomorrow.


What a great idea, Jeri! Think-alouds can be useful in many ways, but they would fit particularly well with this strategy of productive struggle. Explicitly showing students how to struggle successfully (at the same time explaining WHY you are asking them to do so) is a great approach. Thanks for the reminder of another great option!