The International Reading Association (IRA) has a vested interest in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as half of the standards are about ELA. The CCSS push reading into the hands of not just our traditional reading teachers, but of every teacher within the school. The IRA is working hard to help get information on how to meet these aggressive goals out to the teaching public. One such article is "Teaching Students to Closely Read Texts: How and When" by D. Lapp, B. Moss, K. Johnson and M. Grant from Rigorous Real-World Teaching and Learning Fall 2012.
One of the CCSS reading goals is to enable students to "undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature" (CCSS, 2010, p. 3). The first question is what is close reading? The article's authors use Anderson and Pearsons 1984 definition which incorporates the need to "analyze and scaffold textually based inferences" which includes "understanding the language of the passage" and then using "context clues to support an even more precise understanding of the intent of the language" (p. 2).
My students with disabilities are not merely confronted with the need to understand the literal definition of the word, something that often baffles them, but the implied meaning. Students with language difficulties, whether ELL or language delayed obviously struggle with the first. Students with memory or processing issues struggle on both ends of the formula. Then you take the kids who struggle to interpret the squiggles on the page that we easily get meaning from and the kids with social difficulties who do not make inferences or connections easily and you have a pantheon of kids who are going to see this goal as an unclimbable mountain.
The author's suggestion is the inclusion of companion texts. This is not merely replacement texts, but companions. The purpose of such texts is to help build context around which meaning can be drawn. Their approach has the students starting with the complex text and noting areas of confusion and difficulty. (I think about Kelley Gallagher's article of the week idea and highlighting what you don't get.) Sticky notes, bookmarks, or even simple paper could be used as well. Before introducing companion texts, the teacher needs to use this first read to assess if the entire class needs some concrete or visual experience to help build background knowledge. Videos, demonstrations, field trips, realia all could be used to address holes in background knowledge that need to be filled.
Then you present your companion texts which will be used to scaffold learning. There will probably need to be at least two companion texts, one significantly below grade level and one moderately below level. They should include short passages that offer progressively more complex understanding of the theme, topic, issues or messages and use the same key vocabulary. Poems, songs, newspaper articles and lower level textbooks may be used, but teachers may have to write their own passages sometimes. (For help with identifying the readability of a passage based on vocabulary: http://www.readabilityformulas.com/free-readability-formula-tests.php is a website that allows you to enter the text and then evaluates its readability. Be careful though because this is a measure, not an absolute assignment of how considerate a text is or how approachable it is to a student.)
Teachers will need to model how to use the lower level texts to make connections to the complex text, to understand vocabulary, and to ensure active reading. After reading the companion text, the complex text is read again, making notes on where confusions are cleared up and perhaps, where new confusions occur. If more than one round of companion texts is needed for a group, then they repeat the process, gradually working up to the complex text. Discussion can ensue and understanding enhanced.
The major challenge with this approach is time. Teachers have broad curriculums to wade through and completing this approach for each reading is completely unrealistic. This is where teachers need to be judicious. Sometimes readings need to be at the students level so that material can be read, processed and then acted on. Other times, however, the complex material needs lots of dedicated time. This often means that instead of reading the entire text closely, only a short critical segment is read closely. Higher level students might be assigned the entire reading while companion texts are used for struggling learners. If once a month each teacher from the special areas, math, science, and social studies selects a text to read closely, the burden of teaching the skill is spread out and students can see that reading in all areas requires close attention. This does, however, require school-wide cooperation, training and dedication. Starting with a few non-ELA types and slowly spreading the idea through other areas based on success and testimonials is probably the way to introduce the strategy. Teachers may need help finding and developing appropriate companion texts. This is time consuming, especially at first. Resources may need to be redistributed, and creative solutions sought.
As a special ed teacher, I have used lower level readings to support my students' understanding of the course content. I know that this can be done. It is just another way teaching is changing to address the needs of all students and the new challenges our society is presenting to us.