Thoughts on Text Complexity
In the article, “Understanding the Core: Text Complexity,” Christina Hank asserts, “The need for choosing appropriately challenging grade-level texts comes from research showing that although college and workplace text difficulty has risen in recent decades, the level of difficulty in the textbooks, literature, and informational texts we use in our classrooms has steadily declined.” This assertion forms the basis for one of the three underlying shifts for English teachers and the Common Core: stated simply, students need to be exposed to more complex text. This idea in and of itself sounds reasonable, and is in fact an idea that at least some of the English teachers I have worked with have historically embraced.
In the past I myself embraced what Fountas and Pinnel called “a balanced literacy approach.” Under this model classroom reading would be made up of the following components: independent reading (at the student’s independent reading level), guided reading of a whole-group text (at median instructional reading level for class) and teacher read aloud (slightly above median instructional level). The common core call for increased text complexity seems to fit well with the “guided reading” portion of the block. This is the part of the instructional series where the teacher guides students, scaffolds, and ultimately hopes to make students more independent at reading challenging text and being able to analyze it carefully. Teachers model and then gradually release control of things like “how to annotate text” and “how to question text” for a rhetorical reading approach.
Until reading Boyer’s article, “Scaffolding Text Complexity for At-Risk Readers,” I was unsure as to how the independent reading fit into the Common Core model. Boyer explains that at Newark High School they implemented a double-block reading program for at-risk students, where the first period was small-group reading instruction, with groupings based on the students’ independent reading levels, and the second block was the more “traditional” English class where students did whole-group reading and analysis of complex texts. Using this model, which very much resembles the Fountas and Pinnel “balanced literacy model,” Boyer reports that “we have seen very positive results on the state reading test for students who participated in the program.”
When Boyer describes how to decide if a certain text meets the “complexity” requirement, she tells us, “The place to begin with is the student’s reading level.” I have been testing students’ reading levels on the first day of school for 14 years, and I agree: the single most important piece of data we can have on a student is their independent reading level. I actually wish that MyData (LAUSD student data system) would track this information as well; I, as the English teacher, should not be the only one who knows this vital information. History teachers, for example, need to know when they have students in the their classes that are so far behind grade level reading ability that accessing the textbook is utterly frustrating, if not impossible, for that student.
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree that students need to be challenged with text, while at the same time also being given reading assignments based upon their independent reading levels. I have been perfecting the ability to match books to readers, and at the same time building an ENORMOUS classroom library to facilitate this, and it is by no means an easy task to accomplish. I hope through articles like Ms. Boyer’s that we as a district can put more emphasis on the importance of reading levels and how to communicate that data with students, parents and other teachers.