To begin today, please read the following stanza from Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Can you remember the first time you encountered this poem? Were you a student? What grade were you in?
Now put the poem into current instructional contexts. Given the guidelines for determining text complexity, how would you determine whether the poem is appropriately complex for the students at the grade level you teach?
This week, we shared that the Supplemental Information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: New Research on Text Complexity recommends that a good starting point for determining complexity is looking at two quantitative measures to determine an appropriate grade level band. If you were to do that for this poem, you’d find that this poem has a Flesch-Kincaid score of 3.8 and a Lexile measure of 800.
These quantitative measures would place Frost’s poem in the 2nd-3rd grade Common Core Band.
If you’re thinking what we’re thinking you’re probably saying “WHAT?????” while flipping through the pages of Appendix A to find the explanations of criteria for judging a text qualitatively so that you can figure out how to justify this poem’s placement in a higher grade because, gosh, it just seems like second or third grade isn’t the right place for it.
Don’t worry. As per recommendation number four in Appendix A’s new appendage, “certain measures are less valid or not applicable for certain kinds of texts.” (p.8)
Quantitative measures are derived by looking at certain factors, such as word frequency, sentence length, and syllabication. By design, poetry is written in short lines. Word choice is driven by sound and rhythm. These elements of poetry flummox the algorithms designed to calculate complexity, algorithms which assume that longer sentences are more complex. As any reader of poetry knows, however, these short lines and carefully selected words offer carry powerful imagery or figurative language that requires a level of sophisticated thought to understand.
The new recommendation says that making decisions about the complexity of poems is a matter of qualitative assessment. Teachers must think about how the text is structured and organized, what kind of language is used and whether it is clear and conventional. They must consider what sort of life experiences students may or may not have had that will contribute to their understanding the poem as well as the way in which the piece uses figurative language and imagery to convey meaning. For most text formats, two quantitative measures will put you in the neighborhood of an appropriate complexity level, poetry is a unique case.