My argument here is simple: you, the teacher, have control over text complexity for your kids.
I’m definitely not saying all teachers have the same amount of control. Some teachers get to pick virtually every text their students read; others allow their students to pick nearly every text they read; and still others have all of their course texts decided upon by people outside of their classroom.
I’m saying that in any of these situations — even that last one, in which no control seems apparent — you’ve got some power.
Let’s get to it.
The Common Core defines text complexity using the triangle of life
The triangle of life is this thing:
(For those of you who haven’t seen this thing before, check out the Common Core’s Appendix A, page 4.)
Remember last post when I pointed out that most Common Core text complexity critics (including this New Republic article’s author) fail to comprehend text complexity as it’s laid out by the Common Core? The triangle above explains why. Please keep reading if you’re not clear on why that is — this is critically important because it’s such a simple way to right the misinformation that’s fueling much of the Common Core freak out.
Quantitative measures = one (!!!!) shard of the triangle
According to Common Core Appendix A, quantitative measures are:
those aspects of text complexity, such as word length or [word] frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion, that are difficult if not impossible for a human reader to evaluate efficiently, especially in long texts, and are thus today typically measured by computer software.
Now, if you were horribly inept at life and intent on creating an absurd, nonsensical reading curriculum, you would use only quantitative measures to determine which texts were appropriate for which grades. Below is an infographic created for the above linked, sensationalistically misleading New Republic article — this should give you an immediate sense of why quantitative measures cannot (and do not, in any school I’ve ever visited or heard of) stand alone.
I work in a district that uses SRI testing and Lexile levels — not exclusively, Mr. New Republic author, but as part of our reading instruction/intervention/assessment strategy — and while these tools are useful in helping kids and teachers get one part of the text complexity picture, neither my students nor I am foolish enough to believe they measure all things.
Thankfully, the Common Core authors were not this foolish, either.
Qualitative measures = job security for humans
From Common Core Appendix A, p. 4:
[Quantitative measures are] those aspects of text complexity best measured or only measurable by an attentive human reader, such as levels of meaning or [levels of] purpose; structure; language conventionality and [language] clarity; and knowledge demands.
This is why the New Republic article is misleading — everyone, including the authors of the Common Core, knows that The Sun Also Rises is more complex than Charlotte’s Web. There’s a difference between trying to enter the world of a protagonist emasculated by war and the world of a great pig.
So when people come to you freaking out about this, just tell them to take a deep breath; the authors of the Common Core are not mindless simpletons, nor are they maniacal corporate overlords. I’m sure their motives, like those of every single human on the planet, were not always pure when they wrote the standards, but I don’t gain much by assuming that their motives were as void of light as a black hole. (Thankfully physics teachers don’t read this blog because I’m probably off on that analogy.)
If I may just wax tangential for a moment more, here’s what’s so important about resisting the Common Core freakout: there are so many critical, freak-out-worthy problems in the world right now — the Common Core is not one of them! I mean, if I’m going to pick a hill to die on in education today, there are lots of things higher on my list than a list of literacy college- and career-readiness targets.
Seriously. The Common Core is not a worthy hill to die on! Fight something else!
*Deep breathing. Deep breathing.*
If I may return to this post’s actual topic, there are now plenty of resources for analyzing qualitative text complexity. Jim Burke’s Common Core Companion contains tools in its appendix area, and AchievetheCore.org has free, downloadable rubrics (click Download All) for analyzing qualitative text complexity for both informational and literary texts.
Reader & Task considerations = teacher power
Finally, here’s how the Appendix defines the third shard of the triangle of life:
While the prior two elements of the model focus on the inherent complexity of text, variables specific to particular readers (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and to particular tasks (such as purpose and the complexity of the task assigned and [complexity of] the questions posed) must also be considered when determining whether a text is appropriate for a given student. Such assessments are best made by teachers employing their professional judgment, experience, and knowledge of their students and the subject.
Dear, dear members of this community, this paragraph is exactly why we must continue to insist that people not freak out about the Common Core. Not freaking out starts with owning the standards–we must become the most knowledgeable people in our buildings about what these things say.
And what is the final word the Common Core authors give when explaining text complexity? That text complexity ultimately varies by each individual reader, and that the best people in a school to make determinations of text complexity (and modifications appropriate for any given student or class) are the teachers who teach the kids. (<– Click here to tweet that.)
There are two sub-points I’d like to make here.
Text complexity decreases as motivation increases
This is why so many students cannot handle the text demands of college and a career — they are suddenly faced with things that are complex by quantitative and qualitative measures, and then, to top it off, their professors and bosses offer little more than “pass the class” or “keep your job” as motivations for doing the thinking-intensive reading required by the text.
Wise teachers, concerned about this problem in their students’ futures, will think long and hard about how to not only use simple hooking strategies for motivating kids to dive into a text, but also how to teach kids the much greater, more mysterious skill of motivating themselves. I think this is what David Conley is referring to when he writes about “owning” one’s education in his Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know. This is like the holy grail of education; it’s exactly what kids who smilingly admit to never reading a teacher-assigned text are missing.
How do we do that? I’m not positive, but I, like many teachers, have had some successes. Part of it lies in helping kids develop a vision of long-term flourishing in their own lives; another part lies in showing them, in our classes, that they can conquer the quantitative, qualitative, and personal complexity obstacles a complex text presents them with.
This is why it’s worth assigning kids both shorter and longer, whole-class, complex texts. This is why we have to care enough about kids to limit (or completely eliminate) their choice when it comes to a fair proportion of the texts they read in our classes. I tell my boys who love reading soldier books that I want them to become Navy SEALS of life — this means going through some texts that may make them want to “ring the bell” and quit (during SEAL tryouts, trainees are free to ring a bell, lay down their helmet, and quit at any time), it also means great reward to those who don’t ring the bell.
I’m not talking about chucking teacher-chosen texts at kids to make them grittier, nor am I advocating against helping students create a recreational reading life or a love of reading. We must teach our kids to build a reading life! We must develop in them a love for pleasure reading! But we cannot stop there. We can’t. We owe our kids more.
I want my own children (and therefore my students) to be confident in their ability to pwn texts that are initially boring to them.
Text complexity decreases as the assigned during- or after-reading task’s complexity decreases
This is why the article of the week assignment (Kelly Gallagher started the AoW idea, by the way), though it offers my 9th grade students articles from some of the most well-known newspapers in the world, is not overly complex even for my most struggling readers. To succeed on the typical AoW, kids need to annotate the piece (I teach them to do so in a purposeful manner that makes the after-reading writing quicker) and either write an open-ended response to it (I include prompts to aid in this) or a They Say/I Say two-paragraph response (scaffolded with Graff/Birkenstein’s sentence templates).
Similarly, when my students are reading something as detached from their suburban-rural, 21st century experience as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Martel’s Life of Pi, I decrease the complexity by accompanying a majority of reading assignments with simple tasks like Kelly Gallagher’s “20 Questions” assignment. This achieves multiple other goals in my reading instruction (e.g., I know what kids need help with the next day; a greater percentage of kids actually read the assigned pages; kids practice asking specific, “On page 20 Achebe writes ______ and it confused me because ______” kind of questions), and for the sake of our current discussion, it also decreases the complexity of the text to a level more appropriate for my kids.
Knowledge seriously IS power
So much of the Common Core freakout stems from teachers (And politicians. And administrators. And parents. And Glenn Beck.) not reading the standards in their entirety with the goals of figuring out how to make them work right now (which means, by the way, that we’ll have to reduce them). These standards are an invitation for us to think about where our classes are aiming–what are our ultimate goals in teaching our kids to be literate?–and an opportunity for us all to discuss how to get our kids there.
Dear readers, use the triangle of life to regain control of text complexity in your classroom. If needed, share this article with your administrators or department heads — especially emphasize to them that the standards themselves explain that reader and task considerations are best made by a kid’s teacher.