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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Uncovering "Complex Text" in the Common Core

One of the critically mentioned components of the Common Core is the complex text. This need for complex text came out of studies that students were not arriving at college ready to read college-level texts independently. The Common Core documents also indicate other reasons and rationale. One of the most startling claims is: "Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century." Overall, the common core believes our students are not only ill-prepared to read complex texts, but also not receiving exposure and instruction coupled with complex text.

Credit: Common Core State Standards Initiative

One of the challenges of the "complex text" is gaining a real understanding of exactly what it is. When reading the prefaces and explanations in one of the Common Core appendices, the case is made for students to read increasingly complex texts, as it has been found that when students reach college they are not as prepared to understand the texts required at that level. Often our students are required to read these texts independently, so it makes sense to arm students not only with the skills to read these texts, but also give them practice in doing so.

But what exactly is a complex text, and how can you ensure that you are using age appropriate texts in the classroom?

Standards of Measurement

The Common Core measures complex text with three aspects.

Qualitative

When examining a text qualitatively for text complexity, you consider a variety of factors. You examine the text to see how much of the language is conversational and how much is academic. In addition, you should examine the language to see how much is literal and how much is figurative. When looking at literary texts specifically, you examine whether the text demands singular to multiple themes or themes that are complex. You should examine the text for singular to multiple perspectives. You also should consider if the text requires everyday or familiar knowledge and/or cultural knowledge outside of the familiar. These are some of the indicators to look for qualitatively. A text may rank high in some and low in others, but higher indicators overall are a good sign that a text is more appropriate for educating your students.

Quantitative

In terms of quantitative texts, there are many things to consider, and the Common Core acknowledges there is no perfect method for examination, rather there are many effective methods. Methods such as the Flesch-Kincaid and Dale Chall are mentioned as possible measurement standards. Although this data might be researched, there is no specific way for teachers to "score" a text independently. Rather, teachers should consider how these factors mentioned next might create challenge for readers. You should examine the text for syntactic complexity, sentence structure and word length. You might also examine for level of vocabulary and Lexile level. One of the most interesting points brought up from the Common Core is that we must demand appropriate Lexile scores to College and Career Readiness standards, as articulated by this chart:

Credit: Common Core State Standards Initiative

Readers and Tasks

To me this is all about instructional design; that we teachers are demanding rigorous and complex tasks for the work we ask our students to do with the text, while creating tasks that are appropriate for their learning objectives. The Common Core emphatically states that students must be engaged in complex texts, but -- no matter how rigorous -- this is not enough. We must scaffold the learning and reading skills needed, and demand high quality, authentic tasks for students. Educators also need to consider when it is appropriate to remove the scaffolding so students can read and perform independently, hopefully by the end of the year.

A Work in Progress

It is critical to note that the Common Core document states: "The Standards presume that all three elements of the complex text will come into play when text complexity and appropriateness are determined."

 

However, I would push back on the idea that all texts need to have them equally at all times. Yes, we need to make sure we are arming students with the skills and stamina to read texts that are complex; where the task assigned to students is rigorous, the quality level of the text is high, and the Lexile levels and other quantitative indicators are high as well. But I know texts requiring rigorous reading that may be low on the quantitative score. Consider the poem Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins, a text I often gave my secondary students. The vocabulary is not too complex, nor is the length of the text too long. Yet it measures high in the qualitative area, because the thematic aspect and the figurative language in which it’s written require critical reading. In addition, it would be crucial to give my students a task for this poem, whether formative or summative, that is rigorous and requires critical thinking. Make sure you are intentional in your choice of texts, regardless of how they measure up in terms of the indicators of a complex text.

 

Other documents on the Common Core site go into further detail on the ideas explained, and also give examples and contexts. In the Common Core document, texts are also suggested for grade level. These can be used as a guide, but only just as such. As our students come to us with different reading abilities, grade levels and cultural backgrounds, we must differentiate instruction through the texts we pick as well. As the Common Core is implemented more and in more in districts and schools, we as educators need to understand what the "complex text" is both in terms of what is good for our students and what the Common Core might dictate. We must not only carefully choose what they read, but also carefully choose what we are asking in terms of tasks and objectives when students read.

 

Regardless of whether not you are implementing the Common Core, these considerations and framework can help you intentionally pick texts to challenge your students. I hope this blog helps you to weed through the complexity of complex texts (pun intended)!

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

stephanie's picture
stephanie
Eighth Grade Teacher in NYC

As teachers we only want what is best for all of our students. Here is the question. How can we take text that is challenging, rigorous and distinct, and differentiate it to meet all the needs of our students? As you said above,our students come to us with different reading abilities. So the challenge is finding materials that will meet the requirements of the Common Core Standards as well as the abilities of our students. This is not easy. This takes time. I find it easier to take the reading material that meets Common Core, give it to all students, yet break it down in different ways for others. Is this being rigorous? I am not sure.

stephanie's picture
stephanie
Eighth Grade Teacher in NYC

As teachers we only want what is best for all of our students. Here is the question. How can we take text that is challenging, rigorous and distinct, and differentiate it to meet all the needs of our students? As you said above,our students come to us with different reading abilities. So the challenge is finding materials that will meet the requirements of the Common Core Standards as well as the abilities of our students. This is not easy. This takes time. I find it easier to take the reading material that meets Common Core, give it to all students, yet break it down in different ways for others. Is this being rigorous? I am not sure.

Kristen's picture
Kristen
2nd grade teacher in South Range Schools in Ohio

Thank you for clarifying the text complexity issue. My colleagues and I are in the process of choosing new books to use with our students to meet the demands of the Common Cre Standards. We already use lexile levels, but I am interested in checking out the Flesch-Kincaid and Dale Chall measurements for text complexity. I also want to look into the Norman Webbs Depth of Knowledge Levels that another teacher discussed in her post. After reading your blog, it has inspired me to dig out my Bloom's Taxonomy to help plan reading activities that will elicit critical thinking. I agree with you that educators must provide complex texts and know how to appropriately scaffold the learning for all students. As an elementary teacher, it is critical to realize that the age of the children I teach can lead to over scaffolding. The new reading standards will serve as a reminder to push my students to reach higher levels of achievement, while encouraging more student responsibility and independence in their learning.

Nicole Hohensee's picture

Thank you for sharing this valuable information about complex texts. I am a curriculum specialist in Texas. Even though we have not adopted the Common Core standards, our standards still require students to be exposed to more complex texts in all genres. I will be able to use this information as I analyze texts and make suggestions in our curriculum.

Beverly Hyatt Dawkins's picture
Beverly Hyatt Dawkins
8th grade ELA teacher, Sumter,SC

I am a proponent of Common Core and am excited about teaching the standards and the more complex texts, but I am concerned about my students who fall into the gap created in students who have already missed some essential text decoding skills that the CC anticipates in its rigor. I teach 8th and 9th grade Honors students, so my students tend to be more skilled at interpreting literature than lower academic level students, but what happens when these kids are suddenly bombarded with Thomas Paine when they have no experience with classical formal language? The trend I have been complaining about for years towards leaving the classics behind as outdated dinosaurs is now going to bite us in the rear. If students reach 9th grade without ever having read a complex text, how can 9th grade teachers slow down their pace to get the kids caught up with necessary foundation skills? CC assumes certain skill levels by high school, as it should, but what about the kids who weren't exposed to these skills prior to adoption of CC in a particular state? Anyone have suggestions for that?

Christina M's picture
Christina M
7th & 8th grade teacher from NJ

Thank you for sharing this information. I found your post informative and helpful. This is definitely something that is not easy to address. It is difficult to find the right texts to use with our students that are grade level appropriate when there are so many different factors to consider. It is something that takes time on the teacher's part. However, I think you mention some valuable guidelines and questions that we need to examine when selecting texts to use in our lessons and units. Thanks again for your helpful ideas and information.

Katie M.'s picture
Katie M.
7th Grade Language Arts teacher from NJ

Thank you for the information about complex texts. Your suggestions are helpful. It can be difficult, to say the least, to find reading materials for students. There are many factors that contribute to deciding what articles, and novels to choose for students. Typically students do not read on grade level, which can make finding complex texts to be a challenge. Especially when standardized tests require students to read above their reading levels. Thankfully, you make several great suggestions that will help educators make sure that reading materials challenge students. Thanks again.

Tim's picture

I agree resources are scarce for most teachers who want to introduce more complex text in their classrooms. Another obstacle is differentiating instruction and assuring text complexity. In my district, teachers and administrators are still working to quantify and qualify exactly what "more rigorous" means, and how to practically increase rigor in our classrooms.

Annette Loubriel's picture
Annette Loubriel
Homeschooling

[quote]I agree resources are scarce for most teachers who want to introduce more complex text in their classrooms. Another obstacle is differentiating instruction and assuring text complexity. In my district, teachers and administrators are still working to quantify and qualify exactly what "more rigorous" means, and how to practically increase rigor in our classrooms.[/quote]

I have a comment I want to share from my personal experience. I went to private school in the 80's, and I had an above average English teacher. I learned a lot when he challenged us with a writing assignement for which we had to write a professional critique of a very famous local painting by a very famous painter. For this assignment we had the specific task to read primary informational resources-in this case these were original writings by famous art critics on the painting. We had to read the original primary articles and understand them because we had to write a final report without plagiarizing. When I went to college I took an Expository Writing class. The college professor asked us to write about the painting I had studied three years before in high school, this time the professor did not require a research about it, just to write our comment on the painting. I guess my essay was so thorough that she suggested I had plagiarized from some source. I explained to her that this was not the first time I did the writing excercise. Apparently my memory was too good to remember so many details I had read three years before. I guess the point is that sometimes a good challenge works. Give the student permission to take charge of their education, by taking charge of a good challenge. Another one: Sometimes the anwer is a simple one. Beware of too much complication. LET'S GO TO THE LIBRARY!!!!

Lora James's picture
Lora James
10th grade Honors II English and AP Language teacher in Jacksonville, FL

I teach in a magnet school wherein the students are expected to have had exposure to more complex texts. However, the school must take in "opportunity scholars"--students from failing schools. Some of these students can barely read much less handle our all-AP class load.
I'm catching students up by teaching-gasp-grammar. In context, of course. Once I know everyone has a working knowledge of subjects and verbs, we focus on complex sentences and how to determine meaning of __sentences__first of all.The opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence has five dependent clause. If students get lost in the structure, they won't understand the entire text.
I'm not one for teaching grammar. In my former private school, 7-9 focused on grammar and 10th was a review year. However, in public schools, this isn't the case (in Duval County, at least). So far, this seems to be helping everyone get to a common point.

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