July 27, 2016

Misunderstanding Text Complexity

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On this blog, given all the ways to misunderstand and misinterpret text complexity, we have written about it quite a bit.  In a blog digest that we put together last February, we compiled many of our posts on this topic, including articles about how to define text complexity, the importance of not limiting text complexity measures to Lexile alone, and helping children navigate the staircase of text complexity.  As we are now well into the implementation phase of the Common Core, text complexity seems to be the piece that continues to stymie educators.  It is one of the most misunderstood elements of Common Core implementation. In fact, there are two misconceptions, in particular, which have wormed their way into popular belief that leave us deeply concerned about children’s progress along the continuum of independence and proficiency:

1. If we give kids texts with much harder words, we address the issue of text complexity.

2. Texts used to teach emergent readers can’t have complexity.

In today’s post, we address the first misunderstanding–If we give kids texts with much harder words, we address the issue of text complexity–and tomorrow, we will discuss the second.

We’re not sure how the harder-words rumor got started, but we suspect that as educators received admonitions suggesting that their pre-Common Core text selections were “too easy,” the natural response to the criticism was select “harder” text.

Words like “easy,” “just right,” and “hard” have long dominated the instructional lexicon presented to help children categorize reading experiences and to guide their text selection.  Traditionally, we have taught children to notice the words that give them trouble when they read and, if there are none, then the book is probably “easy.”  If there are a couple troublesome words, then the book is probably “just right,” and if there are five or more, then the book is probably “too hard.” So, with the notion that easy and hard are connected to the number of words we do or do not know ingrained in our educational psyche, it stands to reason that the natural conclusion would be, “We can meet text complexity demands if we just give kids texts with much harder words to read!” We may have been thinking about “just right” books wrong, however, all along.

Last night, Kim began reading Stratosphere by Michael Fullan. In spite of being able to read all of the words and likewise, knowing the meaning of each of the individual words, the reading felt hard. She found herself frequently stopping to ask “Is he saying that … (fill in the blank with about ten different questions related to integrating technology with pedagogy and information)?” Throughout the reading, Kim felt the need to reread and adjust the pace of her reading in order to fully understand what Fullan meant to convey. In spite of the challenges, however, Kim feels that she has the background, skills, and motivation she’ll need to navigate this book. This means that while Stratosphere  is “hard,” it is still “just right.”

If you take Kim’s example and lay it alongside the popular notion that we need to give kids texts with much harder words in response to the Common Core’s call for increased text complexity, it becomes easier to understand that text complexity is not synonymous with hard words.  While working to expand children’s vocabularies and provide them exposure to harder words is a piece of the text complexity puzzle, the ideas in the text and the ways in which children persevere to unravel the layers of meaning woven into wonderfully written texts is the other piece.  A text does not necessarily need to be filled with million dollar words in order to give a reader something to think about and ultimately, text complexity angles to get readers to do just that: think when they read.


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