A variety of factors influence text complexity. The complexity of text, or the degree of challenge of a particular text, is the result of specific combinations and interactions of these factors. For example, a text that has short simple sentences may, nevertheless, be challenging to read/comprehend when it contains abstract ideas, concepts that are unfamiliar, or requires a greater level of interpretation to unlock the intended meaning.
Students' abilities to navigate complex text is, in theory, evidenced in their performance on various standardized tests as well as their abilities to do well in college or the work place.
In The Challenge of Challenging Text (2012), Drs. Shanahan, Fisher, and Frey note there are several factors that contribute to a text seeming to be a challenge to readers: vocabulary, sentence structure, coherence, organization, and background knowledge.
They go on to state:
For example, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is often recommended for use with adolescents. Hemingway's language is spare and plain; he uses common words, and his sentences are often short, without embedding or complexity. A text gradient analysis would place this text at a 6th grade reading level.
Yet many students at this age would have difficulty understanding this beautiful book. The reason is obviously not in the book itself but in the interaction between the reader and the book. Few preteens have had the emotional experiences that would prepare them to understand the old man's determination to maintain hope and dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. Students' background knowledge, including developmental, experiential, and cognitive factors, influences their ability to understand the explicit and inferential qualities of a text.This is reinforced in Rothman's The Complex Matter of Text Complexity (Sep/Oct 2012), and this has always been true. There have always been students who have struggled to read for a variety of reasons and students who have not wanted to read because the books seemed uninteresting.
Even so, one of the reasons educators are concerned is that research suggests that while "the complexity of texts in entry-level college courses and workplaces has held steady or increased slightly, the complexity of texts used in high schools has declined over the past few decades."
Now the issue is not just about background knowledge, skills, and motivation, but about keeping up.
Reading Between the Lines (ACT, 2006) reports that less than 50% of high school graduates can read sufficiently complex texts.Students who scored above the Reading Benchmark indicate that "who can master the skills necessary to read and understand complex texts are more likely to be college ready than those who cannot." This reinforces one of the primary focal points of the Common Core: skills development.
There are ten Anchor Standards for Reading. These are anchor standards for a reason in that they were drafted to establish a framework. The first Anchor Standard reads: "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text."
The tenth Anchor Standard reads: "Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently."
As students progress through school, they should develop skills to become more adept at reading closely to determine what a text says explicitly and they should become increasingly better able to make logical inferences as well as to cite specific textual evidence to support their conclusions. As they develop those skills, they can become more independent and proficient readers.
Enabling students to develop skills to become independent and proficient readers is what much of education is about and informs much of the thinking behind the ELA Common Core Standards.
Education in the United States is complex and becomes more complex as we insist on belaboring it with yet more bureaucracy and legislation. Comparing our system to that of Finland or even China is absurd. Populations, cultures, governments, and perceptions of the roles of families and teachers differ dramatically. You can go elsewhere to read about the partnership of the National Governors Association and the CCSSO who were mutually concerned about the future of the country. That is much of the genesis of the Common Core movement. It is, of course, so much more than that. But making sure our students can become productive citizens of their futures is no small thing.
In the end, the single most important question might be this: why do we educate our children?
Once we know why, it may be somewhat easier to begin to discuss how. But the "why" is a loaded question. We value states' rights and a certain amount of independence, so it may be quite difficult to come to any sort of agreement on that "why."
Trying to answer both the "why" and the "how" are reasons behind Common Core just as states' rights and independence are reasons for so much backlash. (As an aside, while I am a fan of Common Core, I recognize the Standards themselves have flaws and that implementations have often ridden close to the edge of disastrous.)
At some point we have to stop the tugging and insistence on being right to reconsider why we educate our children so we can begin to discuss--perhaps even rationally--how we might do that.
But here's a thought. One of the unseen or unacknowledged features of the Common Core is that it invites teachers to invite students to approach learning from different perspectives. What that means is that teachers must relinquish some control and acknowledge that students could find different ways to approach a task or a problem. There is much to say about that in future posts.
Next post: Instructional shifts, Anchor Standards for Reading and for Writing, and Standards for Mathematical Practice.