Thursday, July 25, 2013

Text Complexity and the Common Core: A Close Reading, Part 2

Last week in my post, The Common Core and Text Complexity: A Close Reading, Part 1, I discussed the problematic aspects of the adjustment of the Lexile scores that was perpetrated to match the Core Content State Standards (CCSS) concept of college and career readiness. Today, I would like to look closely at how the CCSS define text complexity and how this could be empowering to teachers, if teachers take advantage of what the document is saying and seize the initiative.

Appendix A of the CCSS defines text complexity. It is very important that all teachers understand this definition because it is useful and empowering. Text Complexity is made up of three dimensions: quantitative, qualitative, and reader and task. Quantitative measures include the useful, but limited “reading level” measures like the Fry Readability Graph and Lexile scores. The CCSS has focused on Lexile scores and has recalculated them to reflect the push for greater complexity. Qualitative measures include such issues as considerateness of text (clear structure, coherence, audience appropriateness), knowledge demands, use of figurative language, vocabulary, etc. Reader and task measures concern themselves with the cognitive abilities, motivation and experience of students. For a clear and complete explanation of these three elements of text complexity see Fisher, Fry and Lapp (2012) Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading, Newark, DE: IRA.

As you can see, the teacher plays a central role in the selection of the text to be used in instruction. The teacher balances the qualitative demands of the text with the characteristics of the students as readers and the reading task at hand to determine text complexity and appropriateness. It is a heady responsibility and also very good news. The CCSS are asking the teacher, the person best in the position to know, to determine what texts to use based not only on a simple calculation of level, but also based on what the teacher knows about the challenges embedded in the text and the special characteristics of the individual reader.

And yet I worry. I worry that simplistic readings of this call for greater text complexity will lead to disempowerment of teachers and inappropriate reading assignments for students. Will administrators, curriculum writers and text book publishers ignore the role of the teacher in choosing texts and ratchet up text complexity for all students no matter their abilities and needs? And what about the tests? Will the tests show the same degree of considerateness to readers as the CCSS seem to provide in Appendix A?

This why it is critical that those on the front lines, the teachers, are armed with the information below, which is directly stated in Appendix A. When you are pushed on text complexity, push back with this:

          1)  Students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading within them, both of which the Standards allow for. (CCSS Appendix A, page 9) (Apparently the standards also allow for prepositions at the end of a sentence!)

           2) Students’ ability to read complex text does not always develop in a linear fashion.(CCSS Appendix A, page 9)

          3)  Teachers who have had success using particular texts that are easier than those required for a given grade band should feel free to continue to use them so long     as the general movement during a given school year is toward texts of higher levels of complexity. Students reading well above and well below grade-band level need additional support. (CCSS Appendix A, page 9)

As I read these statements, I see a clear call for teacher judgment in selecting texts for students. I also see a clear recognition that harder texts are not meant to be a steady diet for the reader. I suspect that many of the creators of the CCSS read many things that are well below their reading level. Children should have the same right.

Why is this important? For one reason, I believe that many educational leaders will hear the call for more complex texts and will try to force teachers to use texts that are simply harder. Remember “rigor” is not in the difficulty of the text, but in the vigor of the instruction. Texts that are too difficult for a particular reader are not rigorous; they are just hard (See my post on rigor here). I also believe that publishing companies, under the guise of the publishers guidelines provided them by the authors of the CCSS for ELA, will soon be on the market with anthologies purported to “meet the standards” that will not meet the needs of many students.

It is the classroom teacher who will be the last line of defense for the students and for appropriate reading instruction. Go into battle with a copy of CCSS Appendix A, with the parts discussed above highlighted, so that you can inform the uninformed.