What is text complexity? What are complex texts?
Pearson (n.d.) describes text complexity in reference to its design as part of the Common Core State Standards:
In the article A Big Idea in Education That May Have Been Wrong All Along, Steve Figurelli (2016) notes that
today's traditional classroom looks like this:
If you’ve ever experienced an English language arts classroom—especially at the elementary level—I’m certain you can picture this: 3rd grade children are working in small pockets around the classroom. Some are independently reading a “just right book.” Others are seated in a book club engaged in a dialogue around a work of fiction at their level. Still another group is listening to interactive, leveled e-books on devices. And all of this is happening while the teacher is working with a small group of struggling readers to facilitate a guided reading lesson with a level J book. All students are reading—some are engaged in grade-level texts; some are not, as determined by a running record assessment.
But what if for more than two decades, we’ve been doing it all wrong? What if by leveling children—specifically in the elementary classroom—we as educators have been inadvertently setting up students (specifically those “struggling” readers) to perpetually be behind? And, in spite of our best intentions, what if we have actually sustained (or perhaps slightly widened) the achievement gap?
He goes on to point out:
What’s been most overlooked is that knowledge is the largest factor that affects a student’s reading comprehension ability. Strategies alone won’t solve the problem. To catapult our students to future success, we must build and strengthen their knowledge base and, subsequently, their vocabulary.
A child doesn’t simply have one level; rather, a child has many levels depending on knowledge and content.
Figurelli further explains:
Students can think critically. Students know how and can utilize comprehension strategies. The research concludes that it all boils down to knowledge. Students may enter our classrooms with a roughly 30 million word gap. We know that inequity exists based on several factors outside of school. ...We must commit as an educational entity to maximize our time inside the classroom to expose students to increasingly complex texts to help build their knowledge, their vocabulary, and their understanding of the world. It’s our ethical and moral obligation. “We’ve spent so much time accessing students’ background knowledge, that we’ve ignored the necessity to grow this knowledge,” researcher David Liben poignantly stated during a recent presentation at Student Achievement Partner’s Annual Core Advocate Conference, Elevating Instructional Advocacy, in Denver, Colorado. Leveling students—and only exposing low-ability readers to texts that are “on their level”—may actually preclude them from future success.
He suggests the following:
In the primary grades, this exposure manifests through read alouds of rich texts, thoughtful discussion, and the explicit commitment to developing students’ fluency.
In the intermediate grades, this manifests through consistent exposure and scaffolding so students can read complex texts independently
At the upper end of each grade band. In both, it manifests through the building of knowledge about the world from high-volume reading.
Furthermore, this author suggests:
We must also give students multiple opportunities to experience various texts on singular topics to build knowledge and vocabulary. Research by Landauer and Dumais illustrates that “students acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they read a series of related texts.”
Texts sets are a means to this end, as they merge various genres, media, and complexities to capitalize on students’ interests while simultaneously exposing children to a wide range of tier two and three vocabularies.
Figurelli concludes: Knowledge, not isolated strategies, drives comprehension
One of the biggest challenges educators face - when aligning instructional practices that encompass complex text - is leaving our own comfort zone.
*Educators must reconsider instructional practices that are designed to scaffold students through increasingly complex texts; these practices will intentionally build knowledge and vocabulary through critical thinking.
Gina Pepin, Ed.D.
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