Equitable Literacy Through a PBL Lens Part 2: Daily Work with Enabling & Complex Text

This is the second in a series of three blogs focused on Equitable Literacy Instruction supported through Defined Learning and Project Based Learning processes.


Imagine walking into a classroom where students are working with a variety of non-fiction texts, taking notes, and using the information to solve a problem. In their teams, each student has a role, perhaps researching environmentally friendly ways to treat icy roads, or learning about ways to conserve energy. The students are engaged with the texts and the task because they are important to their lives and the world around them. The text is rich with content-based vocabulary and meaningful information which helps students connect to careers and real-world issues. This is how Project-Based Learning (PBL) practices using Defined Learning and Defined Careers support Equitable Literacy Instruction. 

In the first blog of this series, readers were introduced to Intentional Knowledge and Language Activation Across Disciplines and the Importance of Explicit and Systematic Instruction in the Function of Language, two of the five research-based practices that serve as the foundation for Equitable Literacy Instruction. This blog will highlight how providing the right texts and utilizing Defined Learning and Defined Careers can create an authentic conduit for meaningful student learning. 

Daily Work with Enabling Text is considered a key component of Equitable Literacy Instruction. An enabling text is one that “moves beyond a sole cognitive focus–such as skill and strategy development–to include an academic, cultural, emotional, and social focus that moves students closer to examining issues they find relevant to their lives” (Tatum, n.d.). Dr. Alfred Tatum’s research suggests enabling texts can have a powerful impact on the development of readers because of the connections readers have with the material. Think of enabling text for both what it is, and for what it does.

Defined Learning and Defined Careers are based upon performance tasks and projects that are authentic and directly related to the world in which students live and learn - easily creating connections and relevance. The texts used to support learning can provide powerful tools for students as they can be individualized and/or based on a specific community or more broadly, society as a whole. Teachers can utilize the Defined book list or research resources included in each task to support each project. 

Students are asked to think critically as they consider potential solutions to problems or issues presented and they are tasked with reflecting on their learning throughout the process. According to Tatum, “high school students need and benefit from a wide range of texts that challenge them to contextualize and examine their in-school and out-of-school lives'' (n.d.). The flexibility afforded teachers and students when using PBL with Defined Learning and Defined Careers allows for projects that highlight what’s most impactful for a classroom community. Take for example the Health Care Lawyer task focused on the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In this task, students are invited to create products that require research into the need for the awareness of healthcare rights for underserved populations. As students work through the tasks, they will encounter a variety of texts that could connect with academic, cultural, emotional, and social aspects of their lives and the world around them. 

Daily Work with Complex Text is also an important aspect of Equitable Literacy Instruction as it provides students with exposure to complex, grade-level texts that allow them to interact with meaningful content and ideas, and to learn sophisticated language and language structures. This opportunity is particularly important for traditionally underserved student populations who otherwise might not be exposed to such vocabulary. Defined Learning and Defined Careers have built-in grade-level texts and resources to support student learning.

When working with Complex and Enabling Texts and Defined Learning and Defined Careers, here are five things to keep in mind:

  1. Performance tasks and projects are authentic and directly connected to the real world. This sets the stage for students to work with grade-level vocabulary and complex texts that have personal meaning. By encouraging voice and choice, students are able to bring their own identities into their work while they build their academic language and knowledge of the world. 
  2. Authentic tasks are thematically engaging as the topics focus on issues, challenges, and problems that may be found locally, nationally, and/or globally. As such, students are challenged to consider their personal and cultural connections through their learning. 
  3. Multilingual Learners may need scaffolds to access the grade-level complex texts. To this end, Defined Learning includes a read-aloud component as well as opportunities for students to view the tasks in other languages. 
  4. Throughout the Defined Learning and Defined Careers tasks, learners are reinforced with new content/career-area vocabulary which helps build students’ topical and conceptual knowledge and understanding of complex nonfiction texts and vocabulary. 
  5. Defined also provides student-friendly glossaries to help with key complex academic vocabulary in an easy-to-access format. 

Building in Daily Work with Complex Texts and Daily Work with Enabling Texts through Defined establishes a cross-curricular focus that can bolster experiences and learning for our most vulnerable students. The final blog in this series will explore the connection between Explicit Instruction in Research and Text-Based Disciplinary Writing and Defined Learning and Defined Careers.  


Please click the links below to view the other two blogs in this 3-part series on equitable literacy through a project-based learning lens:



About the Author:

Dr. Joy Carey has more than two decades of classroom experience teaching middle school English Language Arts in both rural Pennsylvania and Arlington, Virginia. She has also served as a literacy coach and currently enjoys teaching high school English in Baltimore County Public Schools. She is passionate about writing and building connections with students. Her research focuses on how PBL influences literacy skills for middle school English Learners. Always up for a challenge, Joy works on agility training with her Border Collies in her free time.


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