Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Common Core Concern: The Complexity of Text Complexity

The December 2014 issue of the Elementary School Journal contains an article that addresses a serious concern with Standard 10 of the Common Core State Standards in ELA. That is the standard dealing with text complexity. The article, “Putting Text Complexity in Context: Refocusing on Comprehension of Complex Text” is by three highly respected literacy researchers, Sheila Valencia, Karen Wixson, and David Pearson. They believe that the text complexity issue is receiving too much attention and that the attention is not well informed.

Valencia, Wixson and Pearson believe that the focus of reading instruction should not be on a rudimentary understanding of the complexity of text as determined by a Lexile level, but rather on all the dimensions of reading comprehension. Those dimensions, taken from the Rand Study of 2002, include not only the text, but the reader (what skills and prior knowledge does the reader bring to the text), the task (what is the reader expected to do with the text) and the sociocultural context (what are the social and cultural understandings at work in the classroom).

These literacy experts fear that the Common Core emphasis on text complexity will cause teachers to interpret the Common Core as requiring students to wrestle with more complex texts and that teachers will, therefore, present challenging texts to students while exhorting them to try harder and read more closely without considering the full dimensions of reading comprehension. I expressed a similar concern in this post two years ago.

Valencia, Wixson and Pearson put it this way: “If all this attention to text complexity is to have the desired effect on students’ comprehension and knowledge building from complex text, then task and reader factors need to play a more prominent role in considerations of text complexity than is currently the case… Texts must be accompanied by appropriate tasks and instructional strategies to support specific reading purposes and readers who vary widely in the skills, backgrounds, and dispositions they bring to the classroom.”

In other words, teachers must carefully choose texts and tasks with their own unique knowledge of the students in mind. First, the texts may be “complex” in the sense that they are challenging to this group of students, not because they meet some Lexile reading level criteria. Secondly, the tasks must be “do-able” for the students. That is, the teacher must use knowledge of the students and knowledge of the challenges presented by the text to design instructional activities that provide opportunities for student success. Next, the teacher must provide appropriate scaffolding including activating and building appropriate background knowledge and pre-teaching vocabulary to ensure the students have a successful encounter with the text.

The limitations of a Lexile driven concept of text complexity are readily apparent. The authors provide the example of John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men. The book has a Lexile level that would place it in the second- to third-grade readability level, but the themes of male friendship, the unrealistic quest for the American Dream, and the predatory nature of human existence make the book a complex read for middle school or high school.

The task, too, can turn a fairly easy read into a complex encounter with text. As the authors show, we might expect a second grader to read and retell the story of Cinderella, we might expect upper elementary students to compare different cultural perspectives of the Cinderella story in books like Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and Yeh-Shen, while we might expect high school students to examine the gender ideologies evident in the Cinderella text.

The authors conclude by saying, “The point here is that simply knowing the measured complexity of the text is insufficient to locate the text in the appropriate grade-band level without the simultaneous consideration of text-task factors in the context of specific reading purposes.”

Amen. But the authors fail to address how we got here. They say they are surprised “at how difficult it is for many prospective and practicing teachers to fully grasp the importance of taking time, before initiating instruction, to examine the text they are asking students to read and consider the most appropriate instructional goals for a particular text or set of texts and the best means of accomplishing those goals. This is more important now than ever as Lexiles and other quantitative measures of text complexity are influencing curriculum materials and the selection of texts for instruction.”

Their surprise indicates a lack of understanding of how policy changes often work in schools.

I believe the misunderstanding and misapplication of the Common Core Standard 10 lay directly at the feet of the “chief architects” of the Common Core, that small group of (mostly) test designers and consultants that wrote the document. These folks should have known, or at least could have known, how this text complexity standard would have been interpreted by the consumers, especially school administrators with limited expertise in literacy. Two years ago I worried that administrators and teachers would think that the Common Core was calling for kids to read “harder books harder.”

The Common Core architects further clouded the message with a series of pronouncements and model lessons that urged teachers to focus “on the four corners of the text” and to eschew the very kind of scaffolding that can help students read complex text: the building and activation of background knowledge. I addressed that error in this blog post. While the Common Core architects have backed away from some of the egregiously ill-informed recommendations on activating background knowledge, the sample lessons that they have provided through the website achievethecore.org continue to recommend that teachers “avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson.”

If those Common Core architects had had real practicing teachers and administrators on their committee, they would have been aware of some of the pitfalls they have fallen into. If the roll-out of the Common Core had been done as a pilot study, these issues would have been readily apparent and might have been corrected. Indeed, if the Common Core implementation process had any way to be amended, revised and corrected, controversy and bad educational practice might have been avoided. But the Common Core proponents arrogantly forced the standards on already over-burdened and under-resourced teachers and administrators and so we have the resultant educational malpractice that Valencia, Wixson and Pearson are worried about.

Pearson was one literacy expert who signed off on the Common Core five years ago. He has been pedaling back from his support since, mostly because of his concerns with implementation.

While the battle over the Core rages on, thoughtful teachers are urged to choose texts carefully and with full consideration of the abilities of the students in the classroom. To consider the text in the light of the task expected of the students and to provide the scaffolding students need to enjoy a successful encounter with the text.