Monday, February 2, 2015

Text Complexity: Towards a More Nuanced Understanding

This blog has addressed the issue of text complexity on a number of occasions. Some initial concerns were laid out here and here. While my concern that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) approach to text complexity might actually exacerbate the achievement gap was addressed here. Finally, in a recent post I cited a concern from noted literacy researchers Valencia, Wixson and Pearson that text complexity was being misunderstood and misapplied here.

And the drum beat of concern about text complexity goes on. Last week the Teachers College Record published a commentary by Connecticut College professor Lauren Anderson and USC professor Jamy Stillman entitled (Over)Simplifying Complexity: Interrogating the Press for More Complex Text. The article ties in directly with my earlier stated concerns that the concept of text complexity as laid out in the CCSS would lead to confusing, poor instruction and to the continued widening of the achievement gap.

Anderson and Stillman looked at the efforts of a group of first grade teachers in a bilingual school to apply the CCSS call for more complex texts in their classrooms. These teachers reported that they were being pressed by administrators to use texts with more complexity. Both the teachers and the administrators seemed to possess a simplistic understanding of text complexity based on reading level (i.e. a higher Lexile level = a more complex text).

As Anderson and Stillman put it

 Ultimately, our data indicate that teachers experienced pressure from administrators to use complex texts, and that teachers understood “complex” to mean—and to mean to their administrators—more difficult in general. Indeed, the pressure seemingly rooted in administrators’ concerns about readying students for the kinds of text passages they would encounter on standardized tests—manifested in their directing teachers to select whole class texts that would prepare students for that level of challenge. 

In practice the teachers found that this did not work. It became clear to them that simply trying to help students navigate harder text based on higher reading level caused a great deal of student struggle. Some struggle was expected, Anderson and Stillman report that these teachers bought into the narrative of low achieving students need for “grit”, but the struggle the students were experiencing went beyond what the teachers were comfortable with.

Indeed, the struggle was such that as Anderson and Stillman see it, this simplistic approach to the concept of complexity and the resultant struggle led to the students not being able to engage in any type of meaningful dialogue around the text.

The teachers came to realize that their operant understanding of text complexity as higher Lexile level texts was not adequate. They were increasingly aware that they needed to revise their definition of text complexity to include the context of the reading situation, the background knowledge and skills of the students and the reading instruction goals.

Anderson and Stillman sum it up this way:

[R]ather than treating complex text’ as a gateway and/or necessary pre-condition for complex literacy learning, educators would be wise to nurture more nuance. Indeed, since even the most helpful, reliable measure of a text’s complexity will have its limitations we advocate for an understanding of text complexity that is less about single or narrow measures,and more about process and pedagogy.

This is consistent with what I have reported in my previous postings. Complexity is more about the challenge embedded in the instruction than it is about the level of the text. The text must be accessible to the students for complex instruction and high level discussion to take place. A simplistic understanding of complexity, which like these authors, I find to be rampant among school administrators, will only lead to less quality reading and discussion. It is ironic that the CCSS call for more complex discourse around books could well be undermined by a misguided call for more text complexity.

I’ll give Anderson and Stillman the last word.

[Our] findings suggest that the CCSS implementation process, even at a high performing school, pressed dynamic, dedicated, bilingual teachers—the kind of teachers for whom policymakers and practitioners alike clamor to practice in ways that were ultimately less sensitive, scaffolded and responsive to  students than any of them intended.