Last month I attended a training focused on teaching “complex texts” to address the Common Core Standards. Unfortunately, when I left the training I was no closer to understanding what a complex text was or how I could evaluate the complexity of a given text. So, I decided to do some digging into this phrase to better understand what the Common Core ELA Standards were asking English, history and science teachers to do.
It is important to start by answering the question, “Why are teachers are being asked to teach more complex texts?” The reason is simple…research shows that an increasing number of students are leaving high school unprepared for college level reading. “In 2008 the average score on the SAT’s reading portion fell this year to 496 out of a possible 800, its lowest mark since 1972 and down from last year’s 497.”
The Common Core Standards state that students leaving high school should be able to “read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” Although demands for reading in college have stayed the same or risen over the past hundred years, the complexity of the texts students are asked to read in elementary and secondary school have slowly and steadily decreased during that same time period. The result is a higher number of students who are unprepared for collegiate level reading. Many of these students struggle with college work, need remediation or are unable to graduate.
Given this widening gap between what students read in school and what they are expected to read and comprehend in college, the focus on increasing text complexity in K-12 grades sounds like a worthwhile goal. That said, many educators are unsure how to identify a complex text.
There three aspects of a text that the Common Core measures to determine its “complexity” are:
- Reader and Task
Quantitative refers to word frequency, sentence length and text cohesion. These are difficult elements for a human reader to evaluate. To evaluate the quantitative measures, a teacher can refer to an electronic resource like the Lexile Framework. The Lexile Framework will score a text based on an evaluation of these elements.
Students who are “college and career ready” should be able to read and comprehend texts that measure 1185-1385 on the Lexile scale. I was curious to compare the Lexile levels of texts students are required to read in high school with this college and career readiness measure.
I was surprised to find that many of the texts taught on my high school campus fall significantly short of the target Lexile level. If you are curious about the qualitative measure of a text, you can enter the text into the Lexile measure to generate a score.
Qualitative measures include structure, language conventionality and clarity, knowledge demands and levels of meaning and purpose. The qualitative measures complement the quantitative measure and are easier for teachers to evaluate without the help of technology.
A group of teachers from a variety of states worked together to design a resource to support teachers in evaluating a text. I have included a screenshot below, but it can be found here.
This evaluation places texts on a continuum, instead of placing texts in a specific stage.
- contain more implicit meaning and use unconventional structures. Literary texts make use of flashbacks, flash forwards, and/or multiple points of view. Informational texts may incorporate complex graphics and/or deviate from the traditional conventions and norms for that type of writing.
- use figurative language, ambiguity, archaic or unfamiliar language (academic or domain specific).
- assume the reader has life experience (cultural, literary and content knowledge) that will contribute to his/her understanding of the information in the text.
- have literal meaning that is intentionally at odds with the underlying meaning. The purpose of informational texts may be implicit, hidden or obscure.
Reader and Task Considerations
This final aspect of text complexity is left entirely to the educator. Unlike the previous two elements of text complexity, there is currently no research on reader and task considerations. Instead the Common Core states that “educators will employ professional judgement to match texts to particular tasks or classes of students.”
Each class is different and classes are increasingly made up of more diverse groupings of students with a range of needs and abilities. Some classes are composed of stronger readers or students who are more motivated, which may impact a teacher’s text selection. Teachers have to decide what makes sense for particular groups of students to assess this final piece of the text complexity puzzle.
Stay tuned: I plan to follow this post with another blog dedicated to teaching students how to read and understand “complex texts” using a range of strategies and tech tools.
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