August 22, 2014

Lost in Translation

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In our post, Text Complexity 101, we ended by wondering how well we are integrating quantitative measures with qualitative and individual reader/text variables when making decisions about grade level complex text?

In a recent experience Kim had working with a seventh grade history teacher wrestling with how to present Patrick Henry’s Speech against the Constitution, Kim began by looking closely at the text herself.

The speech opens with “I rose yesterday to ask a question, “What right had they to say, ‘We, the people,’ instead of ‘We the States,’?” (Patrick Henry, 1788)  Right away, she felt confused by the word “they.” Before she could go on to understand the rest of the text, it was imperative she do some work to figure out who he was addressing, who he was referring to, and whether or not they were the same group of people.   Without this background knowledge, it is nearly impossible to understand Patrick Henry’s criticisms, and biases are hard to see and understand.

In spite of its Lexile measure of 810, which places this text quantitatively in a category appropriate for fourth and fifth graders, the qualitative factors of explicit vs. implicit meanings and word choice were readily apparent. This text raised issues in the reader and task department as well. Without the appropriate context, this text was hard for Kim, a proficient, adult reader, implying that it would present even greater challenges to twelve-year-olds.

In deciding how to manage this piece, Kim and the classroom teacher decided to share a short documentary video that would provide students the context they needed for understanding the key players in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist time period of American history.  They knew that without the proper scaffolding, even the closest of close reads would be in vain.

So, in returning to the original question of whether or not teachers are honoring all three factors in determining text complexity, this, as well as many observations and interactions we’ve had with teachers in their classrooms, provide evidence that they are.   However, for as many teachers who give careful consideration to quantitative, qualitative, and reader/task factors, we see publishers, administrators and teachers who see text complexity as synonymous with a Lexile number. We have encountered administrators asking teachers to report the Lexile numbers of the texts they are selecting and, if they don’t fall within the confines of the Lexile chart, they scold teachers for not challenging students. We have also observed teachers who would see the 810 associated with Patrick Henry’s speech and say, “That is not hard enough for my seventh graders.”  When we overgeneralize in this manner, potentially good ideas become bad ideas and instruction becomes “littered with the remains of educational trends lost in translation” (Croft and Burkins, 2010, p. xv).

In Text Complexity 101, we noted how the three part model is a reminder that text complexity is more than just a quantitative measure. The theory behind text complexity is solid and by honoring the three criteria for measuring it, we are presented a promising method for raising reading proficiency.

Burkins, Jan Miller, and Melody M. Croft. Preventing Misguided Reading: New Strategies for Guided Reading Teachers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2010. Print.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies,
Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of terms. Retrieved from:

“Henry.” Wake Forest University. Web. 14 Apr. 2012. <>.A.pdf

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