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Common Core & Text Complexity

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Jackson Bryant

on 26 September 2013

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Transcript of Common Core & Text Complexity

Common Core & Text Complexity
Why Is Text Complexity Crucial?
How Do We Measure & Increase It?

prepared by
Jackson Lee Bryant

Reading Standard 10
This standard, though it demands only comprehension, is crucially important for three reasons. First,
it emphasizes the importance of moving students up a "ladder of text complexity"
(Calkins et al. 2012), with the goal to have them reading at an appropriate level by year's end. Second,
it stipulates that students must read with proficiency independently
, without any teacher assistance. Third,
it acknowledges that students will not arrive to us on level
and that getting them there will take time. This acknowledgment, to me, is reassuring.
By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9–10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
Reading Standard 1
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
At the 9-10 level, the above analytical task demands that students understand explicit meaning before grappling with inferential meaning. Here's the underlying belief:
A student must fully comprehend a text in order to cite from it appropriately and effectively.
At the 11-12 level, the standard includes determining "where the text leaves matters uncertain." This added skill still deals with literal comprehension; someone unable to see what a text leaves out may claim that it supports an idea that it does not even address.
So What Does This Mean for ELA Teachers?
Are skills important? Absolutely. But
students must apply
key skills
identified by the Common Core
successfully and independently with increasingly difficult texts.
To do this,
students MUST FIRST understand the literal meaning
of a text. If a text's explicit statements confuse students, then its implied ideas or implied meanings will remain inaccessible

to them.

That is why, according to the authors of PATHWAYS TO THE COMMON CORE,
ELA reading standards 1 and 10 are critical
components of the Common Core.
Reading Between the Lines
In Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards (available at www.corestandards.org), the authors cite a 2006 ACT report titled
, which
determined that the biggest single factor separating upper-level from lower-level performers

not content-related skill, such as determining main idea or identifying theme, but
the ability to comprehend complex (or difficult) texts
The Big Idea
Determining Text Complexity
A Side Note about Bloom's & DOK
Bloom's level indicates the type of thinking
required by a task--what a student's brain will do--
as indicated by a verb
(recall, summarize, analyze, etc.).
A DOK level indicates the cognitive complexity
, the depth of understanding,
required to complete a task
. DOKs 1 & 2 usually deal in some way with recalling or coming up with a correct response, DOK 3 typically demands the defense of an interpretation with support, and DOK 4 requires synthesis, often in service of a more involved explanation, interpretation, or argument. High-level Bloom's verbs may appear in assignments with low DOKs. Such assignments may lack appropriate rigor.
In rigorous tasks, Bloom's and DOK often work hand-in-hand.
Although the comparison is not perfect, we can think of Common Core standards and text complexity in the same way, with
standards providing skill types
texts providing cognitive demands
. Or, to think of it another way, the text level establishes how much knowledge a student must possess already and how much more a student must learn to complete a task; the standard establishes the verb or verb phrase for the task, what the student must do with that knowledge.
Those who attended the Common Core PD sessions in early June may remember hearing Dr. Bissell explain the differences between Bloom's Taxonomy and DOK (Depth of Knowledge). What follows is, I admit, an overly reductive summary.
In Appendix A, the CCSS authors discuss a
"three-part model"
for determining complexity, which includes consideration of the
features of a text as well as
task and reader characteristics
Quantitative Measures
This category includes
text features measurable by computers
--patterns of word and sentence length, text length, cohesiveness, etc. The authors highlight the slightly different considerations of four measuring tools--the Flesch-Kincaid, Dale-Chall, Lexile, and Coh-Metrix systems--without endorsing one in particular. In fact, the authors acknowledge the limitations of all current approaches for measuring the quantifiable surface features of a text while also stressing the importance of such features. Since we use MAP testing, which generates Lexile ranges for students, let's look at the CCSS target Lexiles.
Qualitative Measures
Reader & Task
The CCSS authors point out that writers' stylistic choices sometimes yield inaccurately low quantitative scores. As an example, they cite GRAPES OF WRATH, which the Lexile Framework places at a 2-3 grade band, whereas the CCSS authors recommend it for 9-10. This happens because key complexity factors are unquantifiable. These are the
qualitative features of a text, such as meaning and purpose, structural approach, clarity and conventionality of language
(figurative or literal, contemporary or archaic, etc.), and
assumptions made about readers' life experiences and knowledge of culture, literature, and specific disciplines
(Appendix A provides lengthier discussions of aforementioned qualitative features).
Only "attentive human" readers can assess this dimension of complexity.
As professionals,
we are those readers
. By placing responsibility squarely on us, CCSS authors, both in this category and the next, honor our knowledge and experience as readers and educators.
This category addresses influences outside the text itself, specifically
characteristics of a reader and demands of a task
. The authors acknowledge that
not all readers share the same motivation, skills, and background knowledge
. A motivated reader may be willing to tackle a challenging text when a less motivated one requires something closer to his skill level (ideally just a little beyond it). Likewise, students with significant background knowledge of a subject might comprehend a highly complex text about that subject. On the other hand,
a less complex text might suit the newly rigorous demands of a task
. When insisting on more in-depth literary analysis, I might have students interpret "The Minister's Black Veil" before grappling with THE SCARLET LETTER.
If a text is complex, the task can push students toward complex thinking.
(See Appendix A for further information.)
Challenges & Recommendations for Implentation
Recommendations from PARCC
Recommendations from Authors of PATHWAYS
In theory, once elementary and middle schools successfully implement the Common Core, high school teachers will face few challenges greater than teaching our grade-band standards.
In the meantime, however, we must deal with some harsh realities.
First, students already arrive to us behind grade level in writing and reading skills according to SC state standards, and
with CCSS increasing rigor, these students will be even farther behind
; that's why, when discussing Lexile scores, I said that we'll have to move students nearly 500 points, since some come to us at the sixth-grade level and below.
Second, Common Core authors view increasing text complexity as a school-wide job. When explaining why school's must follow NAEP's recommendation of
a 30% literary and 70% informational reading-diet
for students
by senior year
, they state, "ELA classroom[s] must focus on literature...as well as literary nonfiction, [so] a great deal of informational reading...
must take place in other classes
"(CCSS "Introduction," emphasis added). Convincing other content-area teachers, who are responsible for their own standards, to allot more time for reading can prove difficult.
But the CCSS authors' message is clear: we must all work together to grow readers.
students have limited time in our classes
. No matter how individual schools schedule courses, we have only 180 days, and students see us only one period (~50 minutes) per day. That means we see students for only about 150 hours, which is only about 21.4 seven-hour school days of instruction, and that's if students attend and if we have full class-time for all 180 days. So, as of right now,
if we take all four years together, ELA teachers will have only about 86 school days
to move some students 500 (or more) Lexile points, and
just roughly 75 days before
they complete the
Smarter Balanced assessment
as juniors.

It is interesting to note, though no causal relationship may exist, that when Steve Ventura discussed the expected 30% (or was it 40%?) score drop from state-standards exams to those aligned with Common Core, he shared assessment results from Kentucky--a PARCC state. If Smarter Balanced has implementation suggestions, the PATHWAYS authors do not discuss them, nor did my quick visit to the Smarter Balanced website reveal them.
According to the authors of PATHWAYS TO THE COMMON CORE,
(Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), concerned that struggling readers may miss out on crucial practice received by their on-level peers,
suggests that
schools address text complexity by having
ALL students read complex texts on grade-level.
One could argue, as PATHWAYS does, that
this approach ignores the CCSS authors' advice to meet readers where they are
. When discussing the "Reader and Task" dimension of complexity, the authors point out that some readers may need less complex material. This shows that they know what most ELA teachers know:
if a text is too hard for a student, that student won't comprehend it, and all tasks connected to that text become incredibly, if not impossibly, difficult.
That realization is what motivated Common Core authors to build increased complexity into the standards, to give students a better shot at performing well on the SAT and ACT. Remember that ACT's READING BETWEEN THE LINES reported that a lack of skills was not the problem for low-scoring students; an inability to understand complex texts was.
ideal reading program described in PATHWAYS
TO THE COMMON CORE meets individual students where they are and moves them up a "ladder of complexity" through independent reading with high-interest texts tailored to their tastes and with each text just above a student's present level. To be successful,
such a reading program requires
three equally important elements:
a large and widely varied classroom library, on-going individual assessment, and lots of time devoted to independent reading.
The first necessity is an extensive classroom library, arranged according to general subject and text complexity. This requires funds to acquire materials, a space to store and arrange them, and time to find each text's complexity level. In addition, we need extra space for more books, since our libraries will likely grow as we learn more about students' interests and needs. Occasional trips to a school media center may be helpful, but too much precious reading time will be lost if these trips occur too frequently.
In short, building the ideal library requires money, space, and time--all major obstacles.
Ongoing assessment
, the second necessity,
involves several parts
. We should begin by having each student complete a
reading inventory
to gather information about reading history, comfort, appetite, preferences, etc. Then we should
preassess to determine students' present levels.
After reviewing these documents, we will need to
match students to appropriate texts
. Once reading starts, we should
use running records to monitor student comprehension
of each text and to track movement up the "ladder of complexity."
Running records require

one-on-one interactions

during which we can listen to students read aloud and question them about the text, either orally or with short, pregenerated assessments, possibly writing assignments.
With effective running records, we can identify students' individual reading levels at any time throughout the course.
The last key component is time,
lots and lots of time
. This presents our biggest challenge.
The PATHWAYS authors
, citing the NAEP READING REPORT CARD (1999) and more recent research,
suggest 90-minutes of independent reading per school day
Following this suggestion is impossible if students read independently for extended periods only in ELA classrooms, where teachers must also build skills in writing, speaking & lisenting, and language.
Yet, in a typical high school environment, many teachers from other disciplines, accountable as they are for their own standards, will resist allowing students class-time to engage in this type of reading.

Common Core authors advise schools to follow NAEP's recommendation for distribution of text types.

Distribution of Literary & Informational Texts

The increasing emphasis on informational texts arises from studies showing that "[m]ost of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content" (from CCSS "Introduction").

(CCSS, "Standard 10: Range, Quality, & Complexity")

PATHWAYS authors offer, on pages 46 and 47, the following strategies for guiding students through increasingly complex texts.

"Read aloud the first chapter of a book and discuss it with readers."

"[S]et readers up with a same-book partnership and help the partners establish habits that will support each other."

"[S]upport readers who are new to a text level by giving a book introduction." You can focus only on basic plot elements, or you can introduce key thematic concerns.

"[E]ncourage a reader to listen to an audio version of a book that is a notch too hard and then to read that book for himself or herself."

"[A]llow a reader to have a go at a too-hard book when you note the reader's high motivation.... [S]et a deadline for this reading."

Helpful Strategies
PATHWAYS authors also recommend that teachers visit the READING AND WRITING PROJECT website and explore the resources it offers, including assessments, independent reading benchmarks, lists of leveled books, etc.
My Thoughts on Implementation
As mentioned previously, the
, which describe ideal implementation,
reflect little concern for the worrisome limitations for teachers
, especially those related to time.
Though PARCC's suggested approaches show less concern for meeting students where they are
in order to advance them,
they do fit more easily into existing time constraints
. For instance, according to PATHWAYS authors, PARCC recommends close reading of one class novel for two to three weeks, followed by six to seven weeks of studying shorter texts. That approach, though not ideal, seems doable.
As we formulate our own curricular plans independently and in cohorts, we should incorporate what we feel is best about both implementation strategies.
Dedicating 90-minutes a day to the type of independent reading program described in PATHWAYS will be impossible for me, since BCHS is moving to a modified block schedule wherein English classes will meet yearlong with 45-minute periods; however, I can
plan routine days for independent reading of texts chosen from a large list of leveled selections centered around a thematic topic of study. During these SSR days, I can meet individually or in groups with students who require either remediation or advancement.

Other days will focus on class readings of both literary and informational texts that increase in length and complexity, building toward a challenging centerpiece novel, play, or long work of literary nonfiction.
I will
employ running records all along, creating small groups and providing support or alternative selections as necessary.
Though students may read slightly different texts, based on individual need,
all will complete the same assessments.
My Vision
Putting It All Together
Let's look at a rough English I unit built around Shakespeare's ROMEO & JULIET.
High-school teachers should move students 495 Lexile points, from 860 (the old 6-8 range) to 1355 (the "high end" mentioned in reading standard 10). This means
we must acquire Lexile measures
for classroom texts. A
free Lexile Analzyer is available when you register at www.lexile.com
Texts Illustrating the Complexity,
Quality, & Range of Student Reading K-12

Quick Suggestions
for Elementary & Middle
1st Grade:
CCSS Language 1
"Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard
English grammar and usage when writing...": verb tense, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, etc.
This text contains
numerous exemplar
with patterns that students can follow when writing.
CCSS Reading Literature Standards
2. Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

3. Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.

4. Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

7. Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, settings, or events.
The story lends itself nicely to discussions of point of view, character motivation, meaning, setting, key events, and it contains multiple words that convey Kitten's emotions.

What does Kitten think when she sees the moon (motivation)? Why does she think this (point of view & importance of title)?

Do you find this story funny? Why? Is it because we know something that Kitten doesn't (irony)?

What types of problems does Kitten experience (events)? Does she give up easily (theme)?
2nd Grade:
Aesop's Fables
Reading Literature Standards
1. Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, why, and how, to demonstrate understanding of key details.

2. Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

3. Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.
The fables, being short and driven by characters with strong motivations (jealousy, hunger, greed, power, etc.), fit well standards 1, 2, & 3. When discussing the messages, give students tales WITHOUT the morals. Allow them to find their way, with questions from you, to their own ideas about the messages. Then have them compare their morals to the ones printed with the fables.
2nd Grade:
HARRY THE DIRTY DOG, Gene Zion & Margaret Bloy Graham
HARRY works well with standards 5 (structure), 6 (point of view), and 7 (using illustrations and words to show understanding). You can also introduce irony, the concept, maybe not the term.
3rd Grade:
Mike Reiss and David Catrow
4th Grade:
YOU ARE SPECIAL, Max Lucado and Sergio Martinez
5th Grade:
Tomie dePaola
6th Grade:
HEADLINES, Philip Wilkinson
6th Grade:
DRACULA'S HEIR--an Interactive Mystery,
Sam Stall
Full transcript