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Layers of Meaning: Knowledge Building and Complex Texts

inquirED: Layers of Meaning

4th-grade teacher Paul Han was joined by inquirED’s Jillian Corr and Jane Patrick for a lively and robust discussion around the importance of complex texts, scaffolding, and building layers of meaning in our second webinar of our Spring Series: Building Background Knowledge. The conversation built on ideas surrounding the science of reading and the intersectionality of skills and content across social studies and other subject areas – with one of our most significant takeaways and reminders being that there is time for social studies, and that social studies instruction is important!


Key Takeaways

  • A text can be complex because of its form, structure, style, or conventions, as well as the abstractness of its ideas.

  • Complex texts support improved literacy outcomes and are necessary for building inquiry skills.

  • Encourage “the chew” – let students engage and question. It’s challenging work, but worthwhile.

  • Complex texts allow students to respond authentically to the work with meaningful products and learning examples.

  • There is time for social studies, and we must make time for it in our instructional minutes.

What is a complex text?

Complex Text Check Up

Our conversation started with inquirED’s Learning Experience Designer Jane Patrick exploring how inquirED defines text complexity – reminding us that it is more than just the vocabulary that makes a text complex. Patrick encouraged asking these questions:

  • Are students unfamiliar with the topic and vocabulary?

  • Are the words or ideas abstract?

  • Does the text use formal language, style, or conventions?

  • Is the text structured in an unfamiliar way?

The chat was lively with examples of what these types of nuances and texts could be: poetry, political cartoons, and historical documents were all mentioned as potentially complex texts even though the vocabulary might be very accessible and meaningful to students.

Why do complex texts matter?

Complex Text in Elementary Classroom_1

When students interact with complex texts, they are practicing thinking moves and strategies that will allow them to read complex texts in the world. “We need to give them authentic opportunities to interact with the texts in the classroom, in an environment where they have support, feel safe, and have the scaffolding they need,” according to Jillian Corr, an inquirED Learning Experience Architect. As they interact with these texts, they build the transferable skills – like questioning and context building – they’ll need in the future.

Complex texts also allow students to build deep background knowledge. As we investigated in a previous webinar, background knowledge plays a crucial role in improving reading outcomes, as it influences students’ reading comprehension, engagement, and overall learning experience. “Complex texts open up a world of information and knowledge to students,” Patrick said. “The texts don’t just cover a surface level, so the knowledge is deeper.”

Research also indicates that students tend to experience greater learning outcomes when exposed to challenging texts, provided they receive instructional guidance. For instance, a 2017 study discovered that 2nd-grade students who initially struggled with reading surpassed their more proficient peers when engaging with texts that were two to four grade levels higher than their current reading level.

Complex Text in Elementary Social Studies

Complex texts are especially important for social studies instruction. First, many historical documents are, by necessity, complex. “You can’t just not read the Declaration of Independence,” Patrick said, “and it obviously meets the standards of complex text.” But it’s not only about the text itself. Complex texts are also a necessary ingredient for practicing the disciplinary skills of a social scientist. These skills include:

  • Comparing and contrasting events, accounts, documents, infographics, photos, or other visuals

  • Interpreting primary and secondary sources with an eye toward real-world bias

  • Using knowledge of the present to make sense of past, and vice versa

  • Thinking sequentially to piece together timelines

  • Untangling threads of fact from often conflicting accounts and perspectives

Price of Reducing Complexity
Sometimes reducing complexity can remove value from a source or create misconceptions.

Finally, the subject matter of social studies itself can deal with complex subjects – and if we avoid complex texts, we are in danger of flattening the content so that it loses meaning. Corr shared an example of a 4th-grade and 2nd-grade passage about Columbus’s interaction with the Taíno people. The 2nd-grade example had some of the content removed to help with readability. “You can see that the 2nd-grade text has essentially lost its value as a source,” Corr said, “and it is creating an early misconception of the events.”

How can we scaffold complex texts?

Complex texts require planning and intentionality. Our panelists acknowledged the pressure teachers often feel to “firehose” or pre-teach so much in order to set students up for success with complex texts, as well as the reality that instructional minutes and a lack of “time for social studies” can be a very real pressure.

Paul Han, 4th-grade teacher at Next Generation School, emphasized that when he approaches an inquiry with complex texts, he sets longer-range expectations for himself as well as for his students, acknowledging that this might be a “long game.” “We start with lower-lift tasks, first reads, and baseline understandings – but we are building layers that will help them later on, ” Han said.

Natural Resources Article

Our panelists walked us through the 4th-grade “Natural Resources of the US” Inquiry of Inquiry Journeys, one that Han teaches in his classroom, to examine how to scaffold for complex texts during a social studies inquiry. The complex text they chose was an informational text about renewable vs. nonrenewable resources. In the chat, webinar attendees discussed what might make this text complex for 4th-graders, offering ideas that included unfamiliar vocabulary, format, abstract concepts, etc.

To scaffold for a text like this, panelists suggested thinking of supports across the following three phases:

  • Preparing for Reading

  • Processing While Reading

  • Reflecting on Reading

Preparing for Reading

Panelists discussed how scaffolding can support students in grappling with complex texts at both the unit and lesson levels. “Since we are playing the long game,” Corr said, “we have to look at where students began the whole unit.”

Social Studies 4th Grade Simulation

During the launch phase of the “Natural Resources” Inquiry, students engage in a simulation game that introduces them to the concepts of sustainability and scarcity. “They only have to start with what they know,” Han said. “But it engages them in the whole unit and makes these ideas real for them.”

Students then move on to consider the question, “How is each region of the US unique?” They engage in investigations of various regions of the United States in terms of their natural resources, climate, geographic features, and agricultural products. “They’ve built up a lot of background knowledge before they ever get to this complex text,” Han said. “It really helps my struggling readers to have this to draw on.”

Within the lesson itself, students experience a natural resources card sort as the Opening to the lesson. “This is a low-stakes, fun activity,” Corr said. “It makes the ideas of renewable and nonrenewable resources real to students – connecting to their past experiences of these resources.”

Immediately before reading the text, teachers have a final opportunity to prepare students. In the lesson, teachers and students are guided to “examine images, scan headings, and identify familiar concepts together as a class in order to share inferences and predictions in a turn-and-talk.” Corr said this is a practice common to ELA but has a strong social studies disciplinary connection, in addition to preparing students for reading. “Sourcing is a skill we are constantly practicing in social studies, so it’s also an opportunity to stop and ask: Who wrote this? Why? What are the limits of this source?”

Processing While Reading

First Read Complex Text

When the moment comes to interact with a complex text, the idea of layering resurfaces in ourdiscussion. “The first interaction is a read-aloud – me reading the text,” Han commented. “And students are only circling unfamiliar words, or underlining ideas that jump out at them.” It helps them to have a simple first contact with the text.

Next, they read the text again aloud with a partner, taking turns reading aloud and gathering evidence. “Some of my struggling readers are intimidated by reading aloud,” Han shared, “but since they have already heard me read the text and they’ve annotated, they feel more confident.”

Students are given a graphic organizer with prompts and a structure to categorize findings. “If they are having trouble reading the text because of its structure, the organizer can help to restructure the text in a more familiar and understandable way,” Corr said.

Reflecting on Reading

Students need time and space for reflection after reading a complex text. “I think we can't overstate the importance of letting students sit with the text,” Patrick said. “So maybe students are summarizing what they read, posing more questions, drawing – whatever gives them that chance to make meaning.” The meaning they make will also help them as they move forward in the Inquiry. “Students aren’t done just because they’ve grappled with a complex text,” Corr said. “They are moving on to take what they’ve learned and have an impact.”

How do complex text connect to authentic action?

One of the highlights from our webinar was seeing how students apply their learning from complex texts to create informed action projects that have an impact on their community. “I think that makes a big difference when students take informed action, versus feeling like, ‘Oh, I'm just reading this text because my teacher said I had to – we're actually gonna do something with this,’” Han commented.

A to Z proje t

Han shared a beautiful A–Z vocabulary book that his 4th-graders created with the knowledge they built across the Inquiry. But the learning didn’t stop there! “We wanted to make sure we share this with a target audience,” Han said. “And we felt that that target audience was actually going to be our kindergarteners in our school.”

The students were faced with another challenge, according to Han: “How in the world do you teach this now to kindergarteners? And so we have decided that each of the letters of our alphabet will be covering some sort of topic related to what we've learned.”

A to Z Letter U

He emphasized the importance of student voice and agency in this assessment, and talked through how students, regardless of their skill level, were able to contribute meaningfully to the final project, as well as how this opened up conversations across grade levels for both students and teachers in his school.

Han framed much of the work he and his students did as a partnership – not only a partnership among classmates and peers within the room, but also a partnership between Han and his students. This focus and emphasis on equity and transparency clearly led him to build a culture of support in his classroom. He mentioned how students needed to feel safe in their inquiry journey, and to be willing to take risks as they tried new approaches to the complex work. Emphasizing the importance of student feedback and student voice in the effort was a powerful end to this great webinar discussion!


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About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


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