If firsthand knowledge is gleaned from adventure, from living and seeing the world, then secondhand knowledge, interestingly, is at least as valuable. The difference is, it would be very difficult to live a hundred lives in one lifetime, but capture the essence of those lives in books—ah, well—then you’re on to something! Reading a good book can sometimes be like living alongside someone—shadowing them, if you will—and extracting little glints of wisdom as their story unfolds. By the time students graduate college, they may very well have read more than a hundred books of varying levels of complexity; lifelong students, hundreds more.
Now, if any good has come out of the controversial and perhaps outgoing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), it’s the intention that we continue to create literate students—astute readers who demonstrate independence and build strong content knowledge; who respond to varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline; who comprehend as well as critique; who value evidence, use technology and digital media strategically and capably, and come to understand other perspectives and cultures (see corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/introduction/students-who-are-college-and-career-ready-in-reading-writing-speaking-listening-language).
However, according to a brief issued by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association regarding new research on text complexity, we may not be succeeding in this effort. Yes, the standards place importance on being able to read complex texts for success in college and career, but “research shows that while the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century, the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval.”
They weren’t talking about cellphone texts, but perhaps that’s part of the point. According to research from Common Sense Media, teens spend a whopping 9 hours per day on average using media; a hefty chunk (26%) includes usage for communicating and, yes, texting. While a complex text to Abraham Lincoln might have been Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a complete edition of which he found quite literally in the bottom of an old barrel, today’s complex text might be all of “LOL GTG TTYL.” And speaking of presidents, whereas Woodrow Wilson authored a five-volume History of the American People, the literacy level of some of today’s more prominent leaders is enough to make even the most compassionate educator wince and recoil in horror.
To address this gap, CCSS “seeks to emphasize increasing the complexity of texts students read as a key element in improving reading comprehension” according to the aforementioned brief. The idea is vaguely workable. It also might help to throw a non-swimmer into an alligator pit for a swimming lesson.
The idea of increasing the complexity of texts students read, building a wide staircase from simple to more complex, is more explicitly workable, provided a railing in the form of a series of leveled dictionaries of excellent quality is also included—and would be the more humane strategy. Minimally, liberal use of well-crafted and easily understood glossaries to be studied before—or at least in use while—reading a book or textbook is another strategy. Vocabulary-building books are a resource. Putting digital devices to a most productive use—apps that assist in clarifying words through definitions, examples, and pictures or videos—is yet another way forward.
There are shiploads of knowledge out there. So, remember to live life! And also, read! Meanwhile, for you and your students, dig into these tools and resources around the task of working with, teaching about, and processing “complex texts.”
APPS & TOOLS
Common Core Standards by MasteryConnect
Read&Write for Google Chrome
Addressing Text Complexity (Video)
MEASURING TEXT COMPLEXITY
ATOS for Text from Renaissance Learning
Degrees of Reading Power from Questar
Flesch-Kincaid Readability Helpers
Lexile Reading Framework from MetaMetrics
Pearson Reading Maturity Metric
TextEvaluator from ETS
Text Easability Assessor from Coh-Metrix
Measuring Text Complexity
Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks
Guidance and Text Selection Resources
Common Core Reading List Suggestions
Text Complexity Help: Selection, Lesson Planning, and Tools
CCSSO & National Governors Association regarding New Research on Text Complexity
The Common Core ‘Canon’
More About Complex Text in Common Core
Excellent Article by Caitlin Tucker on Complex Text and Common Core
More About Flesch-Kincaid Formula