Using Text Pairings to Deepen Understanding of Complex Texts

Curating Learning Experiences:

Using text pairings to deepen understanding of complex texts

By Vennieta Grant from @loveteachrepeat

Let’s be honest; most middle school students are more interested in being “done” versus seeking endured knowledge when reading an assigned text. As an English teacher, this realization continually fuels my desire to create engaging text pairings that provide students with an opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge. By creating a solid text pairing, students can deepen their understanding and strengthen their ability to recognize universal themes and concepts presented in a curated text set.

Here are my top three tips for creating engaging text pairings.

Tip # 1: Create a critical thinking “pathway.”

To create a critical thinking pathway for my students, I heavily rely on Sandra Kaplan’s Depth and Complexity framework. The Depth and Complexity framework consists of icons, each representing a specific analytical tool designed to help students develop a critical lens and create a particular pathway for analyzing text, complex ideas, and concepts. [CLICK HERE to access the Depth and Complexity Icons and Content Imperatives Chart]

In my experience, when introducing paired text to my students, I customize annotation guides for students to use as lenses to analyze the author’s purpose, style, universal themes, and more, presented throughout the text. 

It is also of great importance for teachers to model their thinking using the Depth and Complexity icons specified in the critical thinking pathway designed to accompany a text pairing. Students benefit significantly from the experience of witnessing teachers share their instinctive, metacognitive process of making connections, applying analytical skills, and recognizing both the bold and nuanced relationships between the anchored text and the newly introduced multi-genre text pairings. 

Tip # 2: Diversify your Text Set.

I invite you to seize the opportunity to make your curriculum more culturally relevant by exposing your students to a wide range of diverse voices, perspectives, experiences, and layered representations of universal themes and concepts. Text pairings can provide a unique opportunity for students to explore opposing viewpoints on issues or themes presented in the anchor text. It also gives teachers a logical segway, and students an additional reference point to understand the context and discuss parallels between the selected literature and current events and issues affecting students’ home and school communities.

Often, while reading a complex text, students lack reference points required to understand the purpose or themes presented in a text. Text pairings can help students visualize and develop reference points to establish a better grasp of the background information and new reference points needed to understand the anchor text on a deeper level.

Text pairings are not limited to text from the same genre; think outside of the box! Explore ways in which you can appeal to the various learning modalities and interests of the students in your class. My rule of thumb, when creating and developing text pairings is to try and include a minimum of three resources from the following genres: social media posts, songs, speeches, podcast, graphic novels, films, TED Talks, artwork, spoken word,  speeches, and items ripped from last night’s headline news.

Tip # 3: Become the expert 

When adding a paired text set to your lesson, examine the anchor text as if you are experiencing the text for the first time, through a targeted, specific lens. Become an expert on the text.

For example, I chose to use Representative John Lewis’s posthumous opinion piece, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of America,” as an expository anchor text for a lesson on the universal themes of justice, conflict, and power. Throughout the article, Rep. John Lewis eloquently crafts an argument, filled with allusions and references to historical events to illustrate the purpose of his life’s work and deliver a call to action for all Americans. [CLICK HERE to access the See Wonder Connect activity]

To understand his connection to George Wallace, students visit “American Experience: 1968 Campaign” on PBS’s website. To provide personal anecdotes regarding the life and legacy of John Lewis, students will watch and analyze the eulogy delivered by Barack Obama at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral. Through Kadir Nelson’s painting entitled, “American Uprising” to see an artistic rendering, not only the sentiments expressed by Rep. John Lewis, but also depicting images that students see on social media, from news outlets, or have experienced first hand. 


Vennieta Grant, M. Ed., is an ELA teacher and social justice educator at Lynwood Unified School District in CA. She has been researching, designing lessons, creating units, and sharing her ideas for a welcoming and empowering ELA classroom for years—both as a classroom teacher and in her work with beginning teachers at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Find her at @loveteachrepeat.

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