Complex texts are a cornerstone of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. They even have their own section—Reading Standard Ten. A focus on text complexity means students will be expected to read, comprehend, and cite increasingly difficult texts. What heralded this shift, and what does it mean for your school?
A landmark study published by ACT in 2006, Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading, identified facility with reading complex texts as the gatekeeper skill for reaching the reading benchmark on the standardized ACT test. Of nearly a half million students taking the ACT, 51 percent scored at or above the reading benchmark. This passing rate was the lowest in over a decade, and ACT was understandably curious about why some students met the benchmark and others missed it.
Satisfying the ACT reading benchmark correlates with long-term outcomes, including enrolling in college, persisting in college, and maintaining a 3.0 or higher GPA, to name a few. According to the ACT study, across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines, "students who can master the skills necessary to read and understand complex texts are more likely to be college ready than those who cannot." Therefore, knowing that the ability to understand complex texts is such a crucial skill—even more so than other critical-thinking skills, like the ability to make inferences or answer questions about textual elements—education researchers have tried to determine why U.S. students have fallen so far behind on complex text comprehension and what could be done about it.
Reading Between the Lines
Increasing the complexity of texts used in the classroom poses two big-picture challenges for educators: measuring complexity to make sure texts assigned are appropriately complex, and putting students on target to handle more difficult reading. Grant Wiggins, coauthor of Understanding by Design, thinks the real problem for teachers won't be identifying complex texts, but rather "staying true to the demands of the standards, without overscaffolding, and in heterogeneous classrooms where teachers may have students reading three levels below proficiency." To that end, experts advise focusing interventions on what causes students the most difficulty—vocabulary and complicated sentences. Despite their essential role in determining students' success in reading comprehension, vocabulary is the least systematic and least intensive part of English/language arts instruction, and syntax is virtually absent from U.S. K–12 education, says David Liben, a consultant with Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded by three of the Common Core State Standards' contributing writers.
In a more general sense, students working with complex texts need to know how to do a close reading, and this is a skill teachers can explain and model to help students internalize the process. "It's really important to be explicit about the steps, strategies, and tools that support interpretive and critical reading, especially as the texts become more complex," says Jay McTighe, coauthor of Understanding by Design. For example, he says, you can teach students to notice and understand the function of text structures like headings, bullets, bold type, sidebars, and chapter organization. Also, story maps and character analysis charts can help make the invisible visible and give kids a concrete structure for understanding abstract ideas.
Although strategies are important for students to understand and use, experts caution teachers to be mindful of how much time they spend teaching strategies versus teaching the actual texts. "There are some classes where strategies themselves seem like the point of instruction, not becoming better readers," says Meredith Liben, who is a researcher and coordinator of the text complexity project at Student Achievement Partners. "The shift we're trying to get people to make is that strategies serve kids when they need to use them to better understand the text, as opposed to the text serving the strategy."
When kids stumble, she says, try simply having students reread the text, instead of getting in the weeds with strategies instruction. McTighe suggests having students periodically summarize text as another basic way to aid comprehension and check for understanding. Good readers ask questions of the text; that's a strategy you can teach, model, and encourage, says McTighe. Other complex text supports he recommends include
- The stance framework developed by Judith Langer: four stances (Global, Interpretive, Critical, and Personal) that prompt students to analyze the gist of a text, implied meaning, source, and connections.
- A perspective chart: a graphic organizer that helps students identify multiple viewpoints in a historical text and ask questions such as, Whose story is this? Is this the full story? What's missing?
- A character analysis frame: a graphic organizer that helps students record what literary characters say or do in a text so that students can identify patterns in behavior and relate them to broader themes within the text.
Wiggins and McTighe agree that overscaffolding—whether by the teacher or the textbook—has watered down expectations of students. Teacher-led reading strategies are like training wheels that eventually get taken off, says McTighe. "The goal is independent meaning making of text, that's what the Common Core calls for—but it rarely happens on its own."
Don't Take It Personally?
Another phenomenon that may also need reining in is overemphasis on students' personal impressions of complex texts. So-called "text-to-self" questions are absent from the standards, reflecting a push away from personal meaning making and toward more rigorous, evidentiary analysis. "The mantra of a good middle or high school English class is, 'Where is that in the text?'" says Wiggins.
"We're not automatons," says David Liben. "The standards are supposed to be 80 percent of what you teach; it would be absurd to say you don't ever want to connect a text to kids' lives and experiences. But it should be after you have mined from the text every insight and understanding you can." He explains that there are several good reasons text-to-self questions do not appear in the standards:
- Instructional time: Complex texts take time, and the more time you spend outside the text, the less time you spend inside the text. Many materials and discussions spend as much time on student feelings about the text, or how the text relates to their experience, as they do with what's going on inside the text.
- Equity: When you go outside the text to students' experiences, you privilege those students who happen to have those experiences or have practiced having these types of personal meaning making discussions in their home setting. That's usually students from more affluent households. If you focus on just what's in the text everyone has read and studied, you have more of a level playing field.
- Rigor: It's easier to go outside the text, and it's a shortcut to student engagement. But it sends the message that the texts are not engaging on their own and that working hard to wrestle with texts is not a worthwhile endeavor.
"Part of the learning transfer goal is helping students understand when they should be guided directly by what's in the text, and when it's appropriate to bring in personal meaning making and other connections," says Wiggins.
Many teachers have been taught that good teaching smooths the road for students, but the close reading or Socratic approach required by complex texts is a bumpy road, marked by dissonance, ambiguity, and hard work, says Wiggins. "The ultimate goal of education is transfer, but to get there is a long haul, and it requires a gradual release of teacher responsibility, lots of practice and feedback, internalizing ideas and strategies and then using them," he says.
David and Meredith Liben worked with Student Achievement Partners to create exemplar lessons that address teaching vocabulary, syntax, and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The lessons are set up to help students persist despite the discomfort inherent in analyzing complex texts. Notably, the texts are short (e.g., the Gettysburg Address is only three paragraphs), but the lessons plan for three to four days of study each.
"Within short, complex texts, students are able to build stamina and habits of mind, and the teacher can keep pushing them back into the text and providing support to the level where the skills will transfer to their own reading," says Meredith. In the heterogeneous 9th and 10th grade New York City classes that piloted these lessons, David says students stuck with the content over several days of instruction. They even seemed to enjoy the challenge. One student remarked, "This is interesting. We usually just read the text once, and then make a whole bunch of assumptions."
Why U.S. Students Stumble on Complex Texts
- Research shows that texts students read in grades K–12 became easier after 1962.
- Instruction is heavily scaffolded compared to college.
- High school students are rarely held accountable for independent reading.
- College reading is mostly expository, but K–12 reading is mostly narrative, which is easier to comprehend.
Source: Liben, David. (2010). "Why text complexity matters" in Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers: Washington, D.C.
David Liben, Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Matt Copeland, a consultant with the Kansas Department of Education English Language Arts and Literacy, discuss approaches to teaching complex texts. Watch the videos.
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