Text Complexity: Accessing Exemplar Texts Across Disciplines
Found yourself leaving professional development lately with a strange tightness in your chest? Trouble breathing? If you're teaching ELA in a Race to the Top district, these symptoms may be pointing more toward a series of unsettling questions rather than to an actual medical condition, as more information rolls out about new expectations for text complexity and assessment. What are exemplar texts, and how do we get them into the hands of students in districts with limited resources? And perhaps even more important, what is the best way to approach these informational texts in light of the fact that our teaching destinies are now linked, more than ever before, to those of our colleagues in other disciplines? Arming ourselves with information and initiating conversations about these texts with people we may never have had "reading" chats with before may help ease the anxiety.
Exemplar texts that are part of the Common Core State Standards' model curriculum have been determined for each grade level based on recalibrated Lexile levels. Often, a text you might find in your district's eleventh grade literature book is now on the exemplar list for freshmen as text complexity is redefined. While in no way "required" reading, those texts can serve as a good starting point for curriculum mapping. You can easily download the list of exemplar texts from Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards.
As always in education, creativity will be the key to adjusting to changes in text complexity. Temporary textbook and novel swaps between ELA classrooms, free e-book and Kindle access to those texts, and other electronic methods are some options we have considered on the literary front. Yet those suggested exemplars also include a host of informational texts that point to that shared destiny mentioned earlier.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the company contracted to design end-of-year assessments, has emphasized that our studentsand, therefore, we as ELA teacherswill be assessed primarily on nonfiction informational texts about math, science, and history/social studies. In the past, when we've designed nonfiction units, we've focused on biographies, memoirs, and personal essays. Now we're talking nonfiction without a plot. We're talking about a need for teachers to work together on literacy instruction like never before. So even as we explore issues of text complexity in our English classrooms, we are pointing colleagues in other disciplines toward the same jumping-off point we used: the Reading Standards for Literacy for other core subjects and Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards, which also lists some exemplar texts for those subjects.
Open the Conversation
Since we're talking literacy, we as ELA teachers may understandably be called upon to lead the drive toward the levels of text complexity indicated by exemplar texts and toward preparation for determining text complexity. As teachers of high school English (in two different districts), we're easing into this is by opening the conversation with our peers in other disciplines. We're looking at that list of texts together to determine which could be useful in collaborative projects, and just as importantly, we are researching rubrics for complexity that will allow us to make decisions on incorporating additional texts based on quantitative and qualitative measures and on reader and task considerations (ensuring we do not become entirely dependent on someone else's suggested reading list).
In terms of access, which treaty does the history teacher already have in his textbook? Which environmental study is in a journal the science teacher has on her shelf? Do we really need to teach the entirety of a given text, or can we work with segments? Take, for example, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, an exemplar for science, mathematics, and technical subjects which deals with how trends and fads develop. While the calculus teacher may not have the time or inclination to teach the entire 301-page book, we as ELA teachers can put a chapter or two in her hands, along with appropriate literacy strategies.
In terms of literacy, what are just one or two solid strategies all grade-level teachers can agree to teach and use regularly to help students comprehend more complex texts? As Stephens and Brown (2005), in their book Handbook of Content Literacy Strategies, remind us in the type of analogy we English teachers all adore, "Content knowledge is to content literacy as an automobile is to an engine. While the knowledge of subject matter is the framework, it needs something to propel it. Content literacy strategies are vehicles to transport students beyond rote learning to higher-order thinking" (p. 2). Their book is a great resource with which grade-level teacher teams can start tackling these texts together, because it offers quick, easy, and practical literacy strategies for use in any classroom.
After initiating conversations with colleagues, our next step is to map out our own curriculum based on text complexity. Using exemplars as a starting point, we can begin our process at the classroom level, and our hope is that the process will spread from there. Part of that process will be to trust ourselves and our departments as professionals to make qualitative decisions about text complexity and to come together to research, utilize, or develop a rubric that meets our district's needs.
To use a specific example, we could go back to The Tipping Point, which we are looking at using both in a high school English class and in other subjects. Cross-curricular team units may not be new, but what is new for us is the idea of the cross-curricular teaching of reading. By having educators from multiple disciplines determine the appropriateness of the text from a complexity standpoint, each teacher can approach the passages in the spirit of comprehension and higher-level connections specific to his or her subject matter.
Maybe talk of shared destinies through assessment is only adding to the chest tightness, but take heart. These cross-content literacy conversations may go over better than you expect them to. Some of the teachers we've talked to, including those in math and science, are not only receptive to teaching literacy but excited about the list of exemplars and about weaving them into their existing curriculum. So take that deep breath. Simply start the conversation, help identify and obtain exemplar texts, propose one or two strategies, and encourage colleagues as we all start to unravel what text complexity means for us as a whole.
Stephens, E., & Brown, J. (2005). A Handbook of Content Literacy Strategies: 125 Practical Reading and Writing Ideas, 2nd ed. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.
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