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.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Text Complexity and the Common Core: A Close Reading, Part 1

Appendix A of the CCSS is intended to explain the concept of text complexity. Here is the first sentence.

            One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards
             for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts
            of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school.

Now doesn't that statement just make you want to say, “Duh!” When has that not been a goal for all students? I personally have never heard a fifth grade teacher say, “I want my kids to be able to read like third graders by the end of the year.” We all want our students to be able to read increasingly complex text.

Appendix A goes on to argue for stepping up the complexity of texts that students are reading because current high school graduates are not college and career ready to read texts that they are required to read in college or the workplace. The problem the authors sight is that “K12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century (CCSS, Appendix A, pg 2).” At the same time text complexity has remained level or increased on the college and workplace level.

In order to address this issue, the authors of the CCSS in ELA (Coleman and Pimentel) have, in conjunction with the company that introduced the Lexile measurement, MetaMetrics, realigned the Lexile scale stair step fashion in increments moving down from what they have determined is the entry Lexile level for college freshmen (Lexile 1335).

A further problem, according to the authors, is that students are provided  “considerable scaffoldingassistance from teachers, class discussions, and the texts themselves (in such forms as summaries, glossaries, and other text features)with reading (CCSS, Appendix A, pg 3).” In college classrooms, they assert,  much more independence is required in more complex texts.

Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. When it comes to the difficulty of texts being dumbed downward, while true for high school text books, it is simply not true for K-3 reading materials, which have tended to get harder as greater expectations have been placed on early literacy (Hiebert, 2012). There is plenty of evidence to suggest that exiting third grade students reading at a Lexile level of 540L to 580L are successful in future grades. There is no evidence that the new level posited by the standards, 790L by the end of third grade, will lead to college and career success (Hiebert, 2012). This is an arbitrary number not supported by the research.

Hiebert’s analysis of the CCSS recommended Lexile levels in primary reading calls into question the entire scheme to up the Lexile levels across the board. If the 790L is unsupported and inadvisable as a benchmark for third grade, why should we believe that 980L is appropriate for 5th grade or 1155 for eighth grade? Where is the research supporting these designations? If these designations are used to design tests, how valid will the findings be?

The authors of the CCSS are also concerned with the considerable scaffolding students are provided with K-12, because this kind of scaffolding is not available on the college level. It is true, of course, that we want our students to become more and more independent in reading as they move through school. It is also true that as students are asked to read more and more challenging text, they need and deserve the scaffolding that skilled teachers provide. I wonder why the authors did not ask college professors why they do not provide appropriate scaffolding for their students when they give them difficult readings? Is the job of the K-12 teacher to compensate for the lack of appropriate instruction on the college level?

Based on this analysis, I have the following recommendations to make in the face of the CCSS on text complexity.

            1. Ask the authors of the CCSS to provide research that supports the changed Lexile scores at each level. The research must demonstrate that these are indeed the appropriate levels for students to achieve college and career readiness down the road. Until that research is provided, make no decisions             based on tests designed with these new standards as the model.
            2. For K-3 teachers and administrators, continue the focus on developing fluent,             comprehending readers in the 540L-580L Lexile range by the end of grade 3. This range is supported by research as appropriate for future reading success.
            3. Continue to provide appropriate scaffolding for students as they read challenging text and continue to provide easier texts where students can be successful independently.

Despite the views expressed here, the news is not all bleak from Appendix A of the CCSS. In Part 2 of this post, coming soon, I will look at how text complexity is defined and how this definition should empower teachers, if only teachers are allowed to use their knowledge of pedagogy, texts and children to apply what is recommended.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What Constitutes Rigorous Reading?

At the gym yesterday, I climbed resolutely onto the treadmill and set the speed for 3.2 MPH. Next to me on the right a young woman was jogging on her treadmill at a speed at least twice mine. On my left an older gentleman with some physical limitations was walking at a considerably slower pace than mine, but he was clearly working hard to keep moving. We all smiled and nodded at each other in silent acknowledgement that we were each getting a rigorous workout. The rigor was determined by our relative physical conditions (in my case 66 years-old with two recently replaced knees and seriously under tall for my weight), our ages and our goals for the exercise. Three treadmills, three different workouts, three definitions of rigor.

The term rigor is splashed all over the Common Core State Standards. I have a visceral reaction against the term because it seems to suggest that instruction over the past 40 years or so lacked rigor – a suggestion that as a lifelong reading teacher I find offensive. For a wonderful take on why the word rigor is the wrong word in this context check out Joanne Yatvin’s essay here.  My greatest fear is that teachers and administrators will mistake rigor to mean that kids should be reading harder texts. My fear is intensified when I see sample reading lessons in CCSS approved websites like, that ask children to read texts that are well above their likely reading level.

Just as the rigor of a workout does not reside in the treadmill, the rigor of reading does not reside in the text. In their important book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (2013), Beers and Probst say it best: “rigor is not an attribute of text, but a characteristic of the behavior with that text (p.20, emphasis mine).”  As Goldilocks discovered about furniture, texts can be too soft, too hard or “just right.” A text that is too difficult for a child to read it is not rigorous, it is just hard. If I had to run on the treadmill like the young woman next to me, I would soon give up, because the workout is too hard. Likewise when children are faced with text that is too difficult, they will disengage.

And that brings me to my next point.  Any definition of rigor in reading must begin with engagement. As Beers and Probst (2013) again point out, “The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment (pg. 23).”  Without engagement, there is no commitment; without commitment, there is no rigor.
So, to insure rigor, we must ensure engagement and commitment. To ensure engagement and commitment we must be sure that students encounter texts that are both accessible and interesting.

This very often will mean different texts for different students, but it could also mean the same text for a group of students or even the whole class. The key will be the kind of scaffolding provided by the teacher. If a text is particularly challenging, the teacher might choose to read the text aloud. Many rich, I daresay rigorous, discussions can come from a group of engaged students guided to deeper comprehension through a teacher led read aloud. Sometimes the scaffolding will involve a richer pre-reading activity that prepares the students for some of the bumps they may encounter on the road to understanding the text. Sometimes the scaffolding will include text dependent questions that guide the students to greater understanding. Sometimes the scaffolding will be well constructed small group discussions that help students help each other learn.

I think it is useful for the literacy teacher to think of the CCSS call for rigor as a call for deep comprehension of text. Deep comprehension calls for students to be able to answer three basic questions:

            What does the author say in the text? (literal understanding of text)
            How does the author communicate that message? (rhetorical devices, figurative language)
            Why does this text matter? (thematic relevance, both personal and universal)

Armed with these three questions, the teacher can guide the students to deep comprehension of text and a developmentally appropriate rigorous literacy workout.

So under the CCSS it is important to remember that differentiation still matters, having students read text at appropriate levels still matters and having students have many different encounters with text – small group, independent and large group - still matters.

In a future post, I will explore the standard on text complexity and what that should mean for teachers.