Day 2 Discussion: Productive Struggle with Complex Text hosted by Anita Kerr!

Good morning and welcome to Day 2 of our discussion on "Productive Struggle with Complex Text" hosted by Western Illinois University's adult education language arts training specialist Anita Kerr! 

The discussion began yesterday with Anita explaining the productive struggle strategy.  She then answered several questions about what types of focusing questions to ask and how to prepare students for success with the strategy.  To hear more about how to use the strategy, please follow this link to watch Minnesota ESL teacher Jessica Jones discuss how the strategy looks in her classroom.    

Today, the discussion will continue with the topic: How can we use productive struggle with complex text in leveled and multi-level classes?  We all struggle serving students who come to us with so many unique needs and learning gaps, so how can we make sure all students will learn from this strategy?  With our students, there is a fine line between learning and frustration, so how can we stay on the right side of the line?

Please remember that tomorrow, Thursday February 27, our conversation will conclude with a discussion of what resources to use when teaching productive struggle with complex text.  Thank you so much for your comments and questions!  



It was a pleasure to chat yesterday about fostering a spirit of productive struggle when teaching complex text. Today we are going to concentrate on one particular challenge: how to teach complex text successfully in a multilevel class. Do you teach a levelled class with a specific range of reading levels, or is your class more like a one room schoolhouse? Many adult educators teach multilevel classes, where a wide range of reading skills makes for a very real challenge to teaching complex text. Obviously, even a leveled classroom contains students with varying abilities; we are all dealing to some extent with multilevel classes, though for some the range is very broad indeed.

In order to teach complex text successfully in a multilevel class, you can differentiate and distribute multiple texts at different grade levels to groups of students at differing reading levels. This allows you to create just enough productive struggle for students at multiple levels. However, it can be tough to find leveled texts on the same or similar topics. is a great resource, offering the same text at multiple Lexile levels – but it now charges a subscription fee (though the current events collection is still free). A free resource that offers several informational texts at three different reading levels is A third option is, which offers current events articles at three different reading levels, often with an accompanying video. Explore these free resources and try using leveled text in your multilevel class; we’d love to hear a report of the results!

Depending on your students, sometimes you can choose one text that strikes a middle ground. Then, you decide how you will design your instruction to make this text accessible for all students.

  • You could jigsaw the text - cut it into three sections, have groups of students read and summarize one section each, and then share out to ‘instruct’ the other groups. 
  • Another option is to chunk the text into sections. Give the whole text to higher-level readers, give selected sections to those who will struggle more, and adjust your questions accordingly.
  • You can also use one text but provide supports for those who need it like graphic organizers or highlighting of key ideas and important vocabulary. For students who don’t need these supportive strategies, add challenge questions or extension activities to stretch them.

This is not always easy. It takes effort and advance planning, but it is worth it to provide complex text you can teach to the whole group. Giving one text to a multilevel classroom with no supports or grouped activities will either leave people lost or bored (or both). We also don’t want to swing to the other extreme of only providing independent work at each student’s level. Pair, group, and whole class work is worthwhile and necessary for teaching many of the listening/speaking and interpersonal skills they need to develop. 

If you’ve used one of these leveled-text websites, what was the result? If you’ve tried one of the instructional strategies to teach one text to a multilevel group, how did it go? Did you run into challenges? And if you haven’t tried these strategies in a multilevel class, which one are you interested in implementing? I am eager to hear your feedback!

Thank you, Anita, for the ideas and resources you are sharing. I really love having students complete jigsaws with complex text or concepts. When dealing with difficult written concepts, I would often break down the "jigsaw pieces" and distribute index cards or strips of paper to each student. Each student would then become the expert on that concept for the week and explain the idea to the class.(We learn what we teach!) With up to 30 students, of course, only certain numbers of students would become experts every week. They loved it. So did I!   Yesterday's discussion provided excellent grist for this mill.I totally support the practices that were shared on how to "teach students to fish as opposed to giving them the fish" as we so often mention.   There are two approaches, among others, that I have found helpful in inviting students to enjoy "struggling" with ideas. One is the popular practice among some of talking out loud to model the thinking process used by good problem solvers. That approach can be used even among ELLs. We often forget that just because non-native speakers don't have the conversational skills of native speakers, their thinking skills are often outstanding!   The other approach is to have students not only solve math or other word problems but also write problems for others to solve. The complexity can increase with confidence.    Multilevel classes are always a challenge. The differences are not always just in academic level but among other abilities such as drawing, musical talent, use of digital resources,  and more. In differentiating instruction among our studnets, I wonder how we might bring those into play to help learners feel more connected to complex ideas. Hmm... Leecy

Thanks for these thoughts, Leecy!  I am glad you highlighted the benefit for students when they become the teacher during a jigsaw activity. Part of comprehending complex text comes from confidence and practice, and students can gain both of these through a good jigsaw. 

I also really like the reminder that our students are multi-talented, not just multi-level readers. How can we tap into their talents when teaching texts? Offering them multiple ways to respond to a text is one option: let them draw, design a multimedia presentation, or act out a skit about the text topic. 

And thank you, too, for reminding us that asking students to design their own questions or problems is a great way to introduce complexity and struggle into many lessons. This activity draws on different thinking skills than just answering a set of multiple choice questions after reading a text. Any way we can heighten student engagement with the text is a win!

Indeed, Anita. You said, "Offering them multiple ways to respond to a text is one option: let them draw, design a multimedia presentation, or act out a skit about the text topic." Yes!    You also mentioned graphic organizers. I have come across a fantastic variety of student-created graphic organizers with artistic displays, some of which are worthy of being framed! They are so much more engaging than the lines and circles that we used to use and ask students to "diagram!" :) Leecy

Leecy, what a great idea to let students design and 'decorate' their own graphic organizers. If we provide a rough framework of what type of organizer would work for a particular text, students could develop one with their own talents and ideas on display. I love this idea!

This discussion reminded me of a graphic organizer I saw recently that is adapted from a typical K/W/L chart. I call it the Confirm/Revise/Inquire/Resolve chart. Instead of just asking students what they know before reading, this tool asks them to go back and REVISE what they thought they knew after reading the text. This is a creative way to stimulate background knowledge, but at the same time requiring that this knowledge is then confirmed by information in the text through close reading. Again, it's another way to push a little further, ask a little more of our students, and introduce productive struggle.

Here's rough idea of a sample Confirm/Revise chart: Image removed.


Anita, thanks for a great discussion!

Early in my career, I was a "librarian teacher" who would just pass out books, give students' assignments, and answer questions as necessary.  Some students left our program because they felt they were "not being taught."  

I am wondering if students may see productive struggle as "not being taught."  How can we help students see the big picture of this strategy and not give up in frustration?


Steve Schmidt

Moderator, LINCS Reading and Writing COP

Steve, you have raised a key challenge with the idea of productive struggle: What do we do with students who push back against the idea of being left to struggle on their own? Much of the answer lies with our messaging.

If productive struggle is a new idea you're bringing to your classroom, talk about it first. Explain why the struggle is positive, what it will produce for students, and then set parameters for how much struggle you're going to allow as you get started. Perhaps you could set these parameters together in class discussion, so students can have input. An example of a parameter might be that students must read silently for at least 10 minutes before they ask for help; another example is that students must finish the text in its entirety before they can ask for help with a question set or problem. 

One point to remember as you think about implementing productive struggle: you know your students best. If you feel a particular student may react poorly to the strategy, talk to him or her first. Perhaps while others are working quietly, you choose to sit with that student and do some one-to-one tutoring. But do encourage them to join the productive struggle strategy, even a little at a time. When you outline the strategy, use the image of learning to ride a bike. Some ups and downs, even some bumps and falls, may occur before independent bike riding is possible - but it won't happen at all if someone constantly steps in to set the bike upright and steer. Remind them you are still the teacher and still in the room to help - just not as quickly or in the exact way as before. 

Good luck to us all as we try to push students towards greater growth and skill!

Anita and Leecy,

What great strategies for helping our students with difficult text.  I have always used graphic organizers with all levels and ages of students, as well as ESL students.  As you both stated, using graphics adds another dimension to understanding (and struggling) with complex text.  I especially like the idea of allowing students to create their own graphic organizers.  If they can then share their creative graphics and applications to texts with others, it also provides the designers with the ability to teach their peers, as Leecy mentioned - so important for learning new concepts!


Hi Anita and all, As you point out, Anita, expert jigsaw is a great way to differentiate for learners at various levels. I can share an example from my class this week. I am implementing a jigsaw activity with a group of advanced English learners. While the learners are advanced in English, their reading levels vary quite a bit. 

Many members are likely familiar with Katherine Johnson, the brilliant NASA mathemetician featured in the movie "Hidden Figures." Have you heard that Johnson died on Monday at age 101? We recently started a unit on important African American women, so after learning about Johnson's passing, I knew it was the right time for the lesson on Johnson that I had already been planning. You can find the text we are using on The site is free but requires registration. 

This text is ideal because it has subheadings throughout which can be easily assigned to different groups of students. The shorter sections can be assigned to lower level learners, and the longer sections to higher level. We completed the jigsaw this morning, and all the students did great job of identifying the main idea of their section and highlighting the important details with supporting evidence from the text. Everyone took notes on their classmates' summaries.

I'm a huge fan of jigsaw! I'd love to hear more examples of using jigsaw as well as other techniques for differentiating complex text.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP