March 2012


The March 2012 Educational Leadership publication popped through my mail chute and I was thrilled to read its title:  READING ~The Core Skill~.  As an English teacher and reading specialist, I have always believed that reading is the essence, the core, of all learning, in all grades, in all disciplines.   This issue of Educational Leadership features numerous articles discussing aspects of reading research and practice for 21st Century teachers and learners.  As I pondered the ideas presented by literacy experts such as Tim Shanahan, Nancy Fry, and Richard Allington, one major question came to mind:

How can Professional Learning Teams, busy with the day-to-day schedule of planning, teaching, grading, and team meetings, effectively merge the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity with skill instruction that equips students to comprehend and analyze these complex texts?

Let’s examine what the Common Core writes about text complexity.  According to the Common Core,

One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school.  By the time they complete the core, students must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers.

Anchor Standard 10 Grades 6-12:  Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

In Grades 6 – 12, this Anchor Standard for Reading is tailored for each content area of English Language Arts, History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.

My initial question then divided into three prongs as I contemplated how Professional Learning Teams can determine text complexity while planning curriculum.

  • What exactly is text complexity?
  • How can my PLT accurately measure text complexity for our content area?
  • How will my PLT select materials that enable students to climb the staircase of text complexity?

What exactly is text complexity? 

The Standards Model of Text Complexity consists of an equilateral triangle divided into three obtuse triangles comprised of Qualitative, Quantitative, and Reader and Task.  Following is a summary of each obtuse triangle.

Features of qualitative include:

Level of Meaning for literary text or Purpose for informational text: The text with a single level of meaning and straightforward purpose would be easier to comprehend than a text with multiple levels and a purpose that must be inferred.

Structure:
Is the structure simple and chronological?  Or is the structure more complex?  Do graphics clearly contribute to the meaning of the text?  Or, do graphics demand the reader’s interpretation?

Language Conventions & Clarity:
Is the language literal or figurative?  Is the language contemporary or archaic?

Knowledge Demands:
Does the text rely on everyday life experiences or content specific knowledge?

Qualitative characteristics refer to the quality of the text and are the most challenging to ascertain.  The PLT must combine qualitative components with professional judgment when assessing the qualitative measure of a text.

Qualitative Components = Quality of a text

Features of quantitative include: 

  • Word length and frequency of words
  • Sentence length

Quantitative Components = Computable features of a text

Features of Reader and Task

  • Background knowledge
  • Motivation
  • Students’ reading proficiency

Reader and Task  = Student plus text

How can my PLT accurately measure text complexity for our content area?

For many years, my staff development partner and I introduced teachers to readability formulae such as Frye and Raygor, based on word length, syllable count, and sentence length.  After completing a series of steps counting both the words and the sentences, the results were plotted on a graph that purported the “readability” (grade level range) of a text.  There are clearly limitations to the readability formulae, for text complexity cannot be simply ascertained by numerical operation.

Rather, the PLT should utilize the lexile analyzer to compute the complexity of a text. Common Core refers to text complexity grade bands and corresponding lexile ranges for each grade band.

Text Complexity Grade Band

Lexile Ranges

6 – 8

995-1155

9  – 10

1080 – 1305

11 – CCR

1215 – 1355

How will my PLT select materials that enable students to climb the staircase of text complexity? 
  • Refer to CCSS Appendix B for text exemplars.  Theses exemplars are by no means a national reading list, but rather suggested texts that satisfy the components of the triangle of Text Complexity.
  • Compare and contrast texts selected by your PLT to text exemplars to determine similarities and differences.
  • Systematically analyze text by measuring qualitative and quantitative characteristics as well as ascertaining the reading skills of your students.

Summary

As you can see, text complexity is truly a muti-faceted issue as educators work to prepare students for college and career readiness.  By understanding the components of text complexity and working with your PLT to select appropriate texts, your team will be on its way to helping students comprehend and analyze complex texts.

Stand by for a future blog:  Strategies to enable students to skillfully read and comprehend increasingly complex texts.

(picture from lexile.com)

Students Aware of Standards

What does College and Career Ready Really Mean?

While reading “The Early College Challenge” in the American Educator (Fall 2011) I was struck by the “what if” questions proposed by authors Rosenbaum and Becker.  They suggest placing college course learning opportunities on the high school campus to ensure high school students are better prepared for college learning.  However, these recommendations strike me as an avoidance of the many complex issues of public high school responsibilities.

This perplexing article asks: “What if, instead of hoping poorly prepared students will catch up in college, we supported them in taking rigorous courses – even college-level courses – before they graduate from high school?”  The authors suggest:

  • high schools use a “package-deal curriculum”.
  • high schools keep students on track by closely monitoring student progress and giving them guidance.
  • high schools explicitly teach study skills.
  • high school teachers plan backwards from college so students become college ready.

The conundrum lies in the question:  Aren’t high schools doing all this?  And if not, is it funding issues that limit the public schools capabilities?  Or is it influences entirely outside of school which limit student success?

As a parent of two college freshmen, one female and one male, (as well as being a high school English teacher/Reading specialist) I may have a unique voice on the issue.  Were my children adequately prepared in high school for the college classroom?  Will they be career ready?  I say yes, though in ways that fit their unique capabilities.

Here’s a holistic look at their reading abilities: my son does not like to read, though he can read adequately he does not yet compare texts or discuss author’s voice and purpose at dinner-table discussions with ease or assurance – he scored a 21 on ACT Reading; my daughter loves to read – though a diagnosed dyslexic with an IEP in high school, she read every required text by following along with audio.  She also read every book in the school library that was on audio tape, as well dozens more from the public library. She can compare texts and discuss author’s voice and purpose with ease and acuity at dinner-table discussions – she scored a 31 on ACT Reading.   He passed the university’s English Competency exam, she did not. She fought the university on taking a 090 developmental course prior to English 101, and won.  Her scores are higher in English 101 than his.  (Note, however, that they have different instructors – both adjuncts.)

So what does it mean to be college ready? Passing scores on all assessments or just some? What assessments should be mandatory for college course enrollment?  Who designs these assessments?  Are they standard across universities?  What skills do these assessments measure?  How will K-12 know what universities know about the Common Core?

As a user of the SACI lesson plan method I now feel prepared to tell my students:

  • here is a Common Core standard you will master by doing these lessons.
  • here are the Common Core standards you must master in order to approach college coursework.

Did my son and daughter master each of the Common Core State Standards?  I do not know as implementation is fledgling at best. And therein lies the dilemma.  How will a high school diploma signify mastery of the standards?

As K-12 educators across the nation read, learn and write about addressing 21st century skills, we must determine how to join together with university professionals to share expectations and understandings of academic readiness and ensure that students receive assessments at standard exit and entrance points that are valid, reliable, and built on similar expectations linked to the CCSS.  Let’s leave college courses to the university and focus on high school student’s mastery of high school skills and standards.

Finland, Rosenbaum and Becker write, with a population of 5.4 million living within 130 thousand square miles, prepares their homogeneous population well.  Yes, we know. Our task as educators in this country is daunting; how can the heterogeneous United States, population 312 million living within 4 million square miles, do the same?


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