Opening the Door to Text Complexity

Since the dawn of Common Core text complexity as an educational construct has gained so much attention it is nearly in the vocabulary of our society. Teachers rely on text leveling beyond instructional purposes. Some students can only select certain books from their school libraries. And parents compare children’s reading levels like trophies.

For those who haven’t fully grasped text complexity, don’t feel left out. It is far more than the quantitative measures of reading levels, often indicated by a number or letter. Once a text is assigned a level, qualitative measures such as genre, sentence structure and academic content and vocabulary are also considered. These more reader dependent indicators play a role in the ability to deeply comprehend and interact with a text.

Recent literacy goals focus on students climbing the ladder of text complexity; a well-meaning analogy literacy leaders deigned to support the instructional purpose of students reading more challenging texts and improving the over all quality of reading instruction. However, text complexity is not linerar and reading is not a destination. This flawed description of literacy development focuses on the text as the mechanism for growing – not the reader. While texts clearly vary in difficulty, it is the individual doing the reading, thinking and growing.

Instead, let’s envision the reader opening a door of complexity. When you open your front door, your entire house and the memories wrapped up inside reside behind you. Background knowledge or schema are critical to understanding more complex texts and ideas. For example, even proficient readers without a medical degree struggle to comprehend a medical journal, whereas doctors have schema and vocabulary to interpret new ideas within these texts. Students who encounter a new idea will struggle more than those with a house of schema behind them. Conversely, a reader with deep background knowledge of a particular topic can encounter a text with greater complexity on that topic – it is the reader we must focus on, not the text.

It is also the reading teacher we must trust. The ability to determine the new skills a reader needs is critical to opening the door of complexity.  Understanding the cusp of where a reader is and how to move them forward allows readers to encounter increasingly more complex texts and develop skills to understand them. It is not simply moving up the ladder of text complexity, but providing the instruction based on clearly defined needs from the reader.

Another problematic assumption of the ladder suggests that once a reader achieves a certain level of complexity, all others below are subpar.  Just because one level of complexity is mastered we should not discredit the ability to deeply engage with texts that have a lower reading level.  Some of the most profound texts are picture books that a fifth grader could easily decode and basically comprehend – but the deep contextual and social implication of these texts might get overlooked.  

But why are we climbing the ladder when we could be opening doors? Why are we pushing young readers up and up and up, when we should be opening the world of books to them?  The focus on the text takes us away from the focus on the reader.  When we look at complexity through the lens of the reader, we recognize that complexity depends on the reader.  Understanding our readers’ backgrounds and experiences, providing direct scaffolding of skills to encounter new texts and regarding all rich, complex texts, regardless of their lexile levels is  critical to developing literacy.  No longer can our ladder be a trophy, but our books can be opportunities to open up meaningful literacy experiences for all readers.

Jumping Back into Independence

When we returned to the classroom yesterday my students were abuzz with their tales from winter break.  Their stories ranged from watching multiple movies on multiple car trips to not being allowed to use electronics and instead reading for hours each day.  With a range of experiences and a range of beginning and transitional readers, I quickly realized the need to strategically revamp our attachment and identification with our reading lives.

Start with the familiar and infuse it with novelty.  Young children thrive on routines and reading is just the same.  We started our first week back by reviewing our reader’s workshop routines and strategies.  But this work seems so boooooring.  If you’ve ever taught or lived with a first grader you will know – things they learned earlier in the year are things they have “always known.”  Instead, I plan to disguise our review of skills with something new – literature clubs.  Each student, regardless of their reading level, will have a chance to read a book and discuss it in a group.  They are challenged and supported based on their reading needs and the amount of scaffolding I provide.  All the while, we practice accuracy, fluency, and speaking/listening skills in a new way.

Explicitly teach stamina.  Using our senses, I ask students to envision what reader’s workshop looks like, sounds like and feels like.  After picturing and discussion these ideas they work during independent reading time to make their bodies and minds match their ideas.  On the first day back, they read for 25 minutes straight, engaged and energized by their books.  When discussing what that felt like one student described reading as magic because she was so into the book.  We charted our time for reading and celebrated our stamina.  On day two, many students slowed down or took a break from reading only after 15 minutes.  During our discussion, we explicitly talked about why there was a lag in reading today.  They articulated that they weren’t as interested in their books today.  Talking about what strong reading looks like, using the clock to keep track of our stamina, and figuring what goes wrong when it does help readers get back into the routine of reading.

Revisit finding “just right” books. At this point in the year my readers are advancing but not always choosing more challenging books.  In fact, some have attachments to books they have read over and over.  Propelling students forward means helping them step beyond their comfort zone.  Liturature clubs allow me some control as the  books are assigned intentionally at their maximum independent reading.  Using a fresh round of assessments and running records, I can select books and assign groups to stretch my readers.  These books will also become anchor texts, ones they can refer to when selecting new and more challenging texts.

Read more and more. With any habit we are trying to get back into, frequency proceeds regularity.  Getting children to read more throughout the day is critical to developing indepence. I changed the routine for library sign up – now more want to go because they get to sign up on the whiteboard. I encourage students to take more than one book home to read at night, hoping to inspire more outside of school reading. I’m noticing and naming when they self select books more frequently.

Maybe not every tactic will resonate with every reader. By varying the techniques to promote engagement and reinforcing already taught skills in new ways we can continue our reader’s workshop right where we left off in December.