Understanding the Core: Text Complexity
Listen in on any group of English language arts teachers preparing plans for common core implementation, and you are bound to hear the terms rigor, grade-level texts, and text complexity. Venture to conversations with groups more well versed in common core lingo, and you may even hear references to quantitative measures, qualitative measures, and reader considerations. As we work to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we know some texts that have been held as traditional in specific grade levels may have to move to other grade levels to meet complexity guidelines. If you, like so many other educators, find yourself struggling with the idea of relinquishing your Hunger Games unit to teachers well below your high school grade level, perhaps a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding text complexity will help ease your mind and aid in the process of letting go of those cherished, but not-quite-rigorous-enough, texts.
Why Do We Care About Text Complexity?
At some point in the last year, you have probably heard the statistics and seen the graphs that show that our students are not reading at a level that will have them prepared to read college- and career-level texts. The need for choosing appropriately challenging grade-level texts comes from research showing that although college and workplace text difficulty has risen in recent decades, the level of difficulty in the textbooks, literature, and informational texts we use in our classrooms has steadily declined. When looking solely at Lexile scores (a quantitative measure of text difficulty based on a mathematical formula), research shows a discrepancy in high school texts anywhere from 100 to 300 Lexile levels below appropriate grade-level complexity (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010). What does this mean for our students? It means, based on quantitative measures alone, we are currently graduating students who lack the skills to read and comprehend college- and workplace-level texts because what they are reading in high school is not challenging enough.
We have to care about the complexity levels of texts we use because ultimately we want our students to be prepared for the difficulty of the texts they will read in college and their careers. But it isn't just the English teacher who should be concerned about complexity. The CCSS recognizes that teaching literacy is not solely the job of the English teacher, and it goes so far as to set literacy standards for other content areas as well. Though we typically discuss text complexity in terms of ELA, it is important to remember that it applies across the content areas.
The CCSS evaluates a text's difficulty by analyzing three components of the text: (1) quantitative measures, (2) qualitative measures, and (3) reader and task considerations, as shown in the CCSS triangle of complexity:
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To measure a text's quantitative value, you could use one of the many already-created scales for readability such as the Flesch-Kincaid or a Lexile score. Most of the time, these are readily available on the Internet. To search for a book's Lexile score by keyword or title, for example, you could consult the Lexile book search tool. These types of measures use a mathematical formula based on word length and other criteria.
The Council of Chief State School Officers has provided us with this most updated guide (as of this writing) for grade-level-appropriate readability scores. You can use this chart to guide you when making decisions about the quantitative measure of a text:
Text Difficulty by Grade Band as Measured by Six Text Analyzer Tools
||AdvantageTASA Open Standard (ATOS)
||Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)
||Source Rater (SR)
||Reading Maturity Metric (RMM)
Data taken from Council of Chief State School Officers webinar, January 26, 2012, http://ed.sc.gov/agency/pr/standards-and-curriculum/documents/CCSSOTextComplexity012612.pdf. Please note that there are more analyzer tools than these six. As noted in the webinar, "A number of tools are now valid, transparent, user-friendly and reliable to use."
Quantitative measures are one part of the complexity triangle, but the triangle is slightly misleading in that it makes it seem like quantitative, qualitative, and reader-task considerations should all be given equal weight in evaluating a text. But the quantitative measure seems to be the least reliable piece (Appendix A, 2010; Hiebert, 2011).
For example, Appendix A of the CCSS (2010) explicitly recognizes that a text with very complex narrative structures such as figurative language and multiple levels of meaning (such as The Grapes of Wrath) might have a low quantitative score because it uses shorter words, more dialogue (naturally more simplistic language), and dialect (which will, again, throw the readability score off). Quantitative measures, then, are not entirely reliable. They may serve as a starting point for discussion, but we need to use our professional judgment and rely more on the other measures.
A seemingly more reliable measure of complexity is the quality of the text. A text's qualitative measures depend more on our professional expertise and common sense. A work with multiple plot lines is obviously more complex than one with a single plot line. A work with multiple narrators and changing perspectives is clearly more complex than one with a single narrator or perspective. "Fall of the House of Usher" is more difficult than "Gift of the Magi." Texts that are nonsequential or books that require the reader to fill in more of the background information (think Hemingway) are more challenging than sequential or linear texts that are straightforward.
The Kansas Department of Education has developed some excellent rubrics for evaluating the qualitative complexity of both informational and literary texts. You will find the rubrics at http://www.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=4778, where you will also find blank evaluation templates and sample evaluations for Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games and other texts.
Reader and Task Considerations
The third measure for evaluating complexity is to consider the reader and the task. Questions you might ask yourself to address this might include "What do I want the student to learn in reading this text?" and "Will this text keep the student engaged?" Appendix A of the CCSS cites a RAND reading study that identifies the following important factors to consider in accounting for the reader and task:
The reader brings to the act of reading his or her cognitive capabilities (attention, memory, critical analytic ability, inferencing, visualization); motivation (a purpose for reading, interest in the content, self-efficacy as a reader); knowledge (vocabulary and topic knowledge, linguistic and discourse knowledge, knowledge of Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects comprehension strategies); and experiences.
The Kansas Department of Education also has a list of questions for educators to reflect on as they consider the reader and task in text complexity.
What Am I Supposed to Do Now?
This issue of In Perspective will give you practical strategies for addressing text complexity in your classroom. Teri Lesesne, nationally known author, will guide you through matching texts to readers as a way to engage students while still meeting the rigor requirements of the common core. Tara Boyer, literacy coach in Newark Schools, provides a district-level view of what Newark is doing to meet the needs of struggling readers in the district. Kim and Brent Garee, high school teachers in Licking County, discuss starting conversations around text complexity as a place to begin. These articles will give you practical advice while providing you with enough background to be a part of those conversations about complexity.
Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards, Common Core State Standards for Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (2010). National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington, D.C., http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf.
Hank, C. (2012, January 1). Text Complexity: Is This Book at Grade Level? [web log], http://turnonyourbrain.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/text-complexity-is-this-book-at-grade-level.
Hiebert, E. (2011). The Common Core State Standards and Text Complexity. TextProject & University of California, Santa Cruz, http://textproject.org/assets/library/papers/Hiebert-2011-Text-Complexity-Lexiles.pdf.
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