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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Growing Your Garden of Complex Texts

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Ensure that, come September, you'll be challenging your students with sufficiently complex texts.

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Which activities over the summer months will enable you to hit the ground running when students return in the fall? Some years, you may find it helpful to study new instructional materials; other years, you may decide to create new classroom management routines or design lessons that build classroom climate. This year, we recommend that you analyze some of the texts you use instructionally to prepare for increased expectations for student reading.

Why Now?

It's wise to start practicing this process over the summer because it takes some time to get used to. In our school system, teachers were spending upwards of 20 minutes to analyze a text quantitatively and qualitatively, using a rubric we've included here to guide their analysis. With some practice, they internalized the components of text complexity and came to rely much less on the rubric. They can now look through a text and assess it rather quickly.

Three Ways to Look at Text Complexity

In too many cases, the texts that teachers use for instruction don't stretch students to meet the new demands of the Common Core State Standards. Although there's some debate about how to best assess text complexity, many professionals recognize that the three-part model outlined in the standards is an appropriate starting place. According to this model, we should analyze texts quantitatively, qualitatively, and on the basis of the tasks that students will be expected to complete.
A number of quantitative tools can provide a quick analysis of the kind of complexity we can count, such as sentence length, average number of syllables in the words, specific vocabulary words, and so on. Most of the time, these quantitative tools provide an appropriate grade-level estimation. These tools help teachers know that a text is complex, not why it's complex.
Qualitative assessments help us determine the factors that contribute to text complexity and serve as a check to ensure that the topics and ideas are appropriate for students at a given grade level.
Finally, task considerations help us determine which texts we'll use in teacher-led situations and which texts we'll use in peer-led or individual settings.

Upping the Ante

We were particularly struck by the quantitative difference in text complexity between the previous standards and the new Common Core standards for the various grade bands (see fig. 1). As our chart demonstrates, there's significant overlap between previous Lexile levels and the current expectations for grades 2 and 3. However, the overlap is much smaller for students in grades 4 and above.

FIGURE 1. Comparison of Lexile Ranges

Think about it this way: A 7th grader who reads at a Lexile level of 890 used to be considered on grade level. The student would have been expected to be able to read Theodore Taylor's Ice Drift (Harcourt, 2005), the story of a seal-hunting trip that ends up with 14-year-old Alika and his younger brother being trapped on floating ice for six months and having to face the cold, starvation, and a vicious polar bear.
Here's how Ice Drift begins:
Alika, hand on his harpoon, his unaaq, ready for an instant kill, had been at the seal hole, the aglus, for three hours. His younger brother, Sulu, who had begged to join him on the hunt, napped beside him on the sledge. They were on the west edge of a large, thick ice floe attached to land in the Greenland Strait, waiting for a shiny seal head to appear. The floe was old. Perhaps it had broken off from North Greenland and had drifted across the narrow strait, refreezing against the remote Ellesmere Island bank. (p. 3)
This text is now considered appropriate for the 4th and 5th grade band.
What will the new standards demand of that same 7th grader? That he or she can read at a 1,000 Lexile level—for example, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action (Vintage, 1996), a nonfiction account of two corporations accused of contaminating a city's water supply and causing the deaths of several children from leukemia.
Here's how the author describes attorney Jan Schlichtmann's questioning of Dr. John Coffin, a medical expert witness hired by the defense:
Schlichtmann sensed that he had Coffin in retreat. He decided to push him further. "In your opinion, Doctor, does trichloroethylene pose a health hazard in the domestic water supply?"This was a tricky question to answer. If Coffin answered yes, the rational, sane reply, then Schlichtmann would turn this admission to his benefit. He would, in effect, turn Coffin into his own witness. And if Coffin answered no, he would make the doctor look biased and untrustworthy.Coffin considered the question for a moment. Then he said, "I am not an expert in domestic water supplies, so I don't think I can answer that question."This was the rehearsed answer that Schlichtmann had expected. "Well," continued Schlichtmann, "based on your study of the toxicological effects of trichloroethylene, do you consider that it poses a potential health hazard and should not be allowed in a community's domestic water supply?""The question is very broad. I'm not an expert on water supplies.""Are you an expert on trichloroethylene?""I've reviewed the literature on trichloroethylene relative to its carcinogenesis.""Based on your review, does trichloroethylene pose a potential health hazard? And for that reason, should it not be allowed in a community water supply?"Coffin finally relented. "I don't believe any foreign material of that sort should be allowed in a community's water supply." (p. 260)
It's obvious that teachers in grades 4 and higher in English language arts, science, social studies, and technical subjects will need to rethink the texts they use.
In some cases, you should weed out certain texts. In other cases, you should transplant texts from one instructional activity to another. In still other instances, you should grow your text sets. In nearly every case, you'll need to do some pruning as students spend time reading and discussing complex texts that don't easily give up their meanings.

Start by Weeding

Start by collecting the texts you've traditionally taught and analyzing them through the lens of text complexity. First, determine the text's quantitative level of complexity using any of the publicly available tools (such as the Lexile Framework for Reading). Then compare this to what your grade level requires. (See the orange bars in Figure 1.)
Second, determine the text's qualitative level of complexity using the Qualititative Measures for Text Complexity rubric. The rubric highlights four qualitative components of text complexity suggested by the Common Core standards:
  • Levels of meaning and purpose, which focuses on density and complexity, figurative language, and purpose. A literal reading of George Orwell's Animal Farm (Secker & Warburg, 1946), in which animals take over the farm and begin to rule themselves, differs from a reading in which the reader understands the metaphors that describe the Soviet Union.
  • Structure, which focuses on genre, organization, narration, and text features. Anthony Browne's Voices in the Park (DK Publishing, 1998) describes four characters' different perspectives about the same event—a walk in the park. The structure the author uses, in which each character has his or her own font, makes the text more complex.
  • Language conventionality and clarity, which focuses on Standard English and variations as well as register. The narrator of Diane Stanley's Saving Sweetness (Putnam, 1996) is a sheriff with a distinctive Texas drawl that can be challenging to readers. The use of the dialect and idioms makes this book more complex than the story it tells. Consider the opening:Out of the hottest, dustiest part of town is an orphanage run by a female person nasty enough to scare night into day. She goes by the name of Mrs. Sump, though I doubt there ever was a Mr. Sump on accounta she looks like somethin' the cat drug in and the dog wouldn't eat. (p. 1)
  • Knowledge demands, which focuses on background knowledge, prior knowledge, cultural knowledge, and vocabulary knowledge. Leslie Dendy and Mel Boring's Guinea Pig Scientists: Bold Self-Experimenters in Science and Medicine (Henry Holt, 2005) is written in a narrative style that engages readers, yet it relies on significant stores of knowledge. It includes such terms as vessel, trials, and mass as well as technical vocabulary like anesthetic, bacteria, and contrast radiography.
Weed out texts that are no longer appropriate for instruction. For example, a 6th grade teacher we know found that one of the books he used—Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, by Christopher Forest (Capstone Press, 2012)—has a Lexile measure of 700, which is too low for his 6th graders. In instances like this, give those texts to a colleague who can use them, or move them to the classroom library so students can read them on their own.
For texts that are appropriate, record the factors that contribute to their complexity because these will become your teaching points. For example, if the narrator is a factor that contributes to text complexity—as is the case in Yann Martel's The Life of Pi (Mariner Books, 2003), in which the narrator offers two versions of his survival story—you'll need to teach students about narration. Alternatively, if the organization and point of view contribute to a text's complexity, as in Donald Crews's wordless picture book Truck (Greenwillow Books, 1980), then you'll need to teach these elements to your students.

Try Some Transplanting

As noted in the Common Core standards, matching the task with the text is an important consideration of text complexity. Texts can be used in conjunction with teacher-led tasks, peer-led tasks, and independent tasks. The text you select for a close reading (a teacher-led task) should require scaffolding and support, whereas texts you select for peer-led tasks, such as book clubs, literature circles, or reciprocal teaching, may require less scaffolding.
It's likely that some of the texts in your classroom no longer fulfill the purpose you originally intended. You may discover that a title you typically designated for collaborative reading is a little too easy. However, it addresses a topic of great interest to your students. In this case, the title may be more appropriate to include in your independent reading library. In other cases, a text you've always used as a read-aloud may now be better suited for collaborative reading, given its level of complexity and the teaching points required for students to understand it.

Grow Your Garden

After you've done the weeding and transplanting, consider the holes in your instructional materials. What topics now need texts, and which texts do you need to replace?
Summer is a great time to start looking for new texts that appropriately challenge students. E-mail your colleagues, search the Internet, attend a conference, or read some professional literature. Before you adopt the text, identify what makes the text complex. Return to the Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity rubric to determine the teaching points for your new texts.

Do Some Pruning

You probably have too many texts of appropriate complexity that you'd like to teach. Don't get rid of them. Instead, save them for future years.
Before you prune your text list, consider the scope and sequence that your selected texts offer. Do you have texts that enable you to teach all the aspects of complexity? For example, are there texts that allow you to focus on graphics and images? On narration and structure? Again, return to the rubric and make sure you have texts that allow for instruction across all the components.

Bearing Fruit

To learn how to read increasingly complex texts, students need to work with carefully selected texts, both narrative and informational, in English language arts, science, social studies, and technical subjects. Some texts need to match teacher-led tasks, some need to match peer-led tasks, and some need to match the needs of independent readers.
In just a few short months, students will be back in school. The time is ripe to grow your garden of appropriate texts—so you can grow your readers accordingly.
Nancy Frey analyzes the complexity of a specific text.
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Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.


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