By Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona
The Common Core State Standards have focused attention on text complexity, arguing that students need to engage with texts that gradually increase in difficulty of ideas and textual structures, based on the belief that schools have not been rigorous in providing difficult texts. This focus on rigor in reading is based on the goal that students understand the level of texts necessary for success in college and careers by the time they graduate from high school. The problem is that decisions about text complexity in schools are often based in misconceptions.
The first misconception is that text complexity is solely determined by Lexile levels, and that schools should be levelling books around Lexile ratings in order to ensure that students read increasing difficult texts. The CCSS document clearly states that text complexity is determined by three dimensions, only one of which is readability, the quantitative use of formulas involving word familiarity, word length, and sentence length. The other two dimensions, given equal weight, involve the qualitative judgments of educators. The second dimension is the informed decisions of teachers and librarians about the difficulty of a text based on levels of meaning with a text, the use of straightforward organizational structures or more confusing structures like flashbacks, language that is clear and contemporary rather than archaic or unfamiliar, and the kinds of life experiences and knowledge necessary to understand the text. The third dimension is a consideration of the fit between a text and a particular reader as determined by examining the experiences and strategies of readers related to the task. (See Appendix A of CCSS for a discussion of these dimensions).
The use of readability formulas such as Lexiles assumes that longer and less familiar words and long sentences automatically make a text difficult. Although sentence length and word choice are important, a student’s prior knowledge or interest in a topic cannot be factored into a formula. The formulas also have difficulty measuring conceptual difficulty, the complexity of the ideas in a book and how these ideas are presented. Symbolism, abstraction, and figurative language contribute to the complexity of ideas, just as the use of nonlinear plots or shifting points of view contribute to the complexity of the plot. Skellig (David Almond, 1999) is a novel of magical realism in which two children become involved with an otherworldly being hidden in a garage. The text has easy vocabulary and short sentences with a readability of around Grade 3.5. Yet the concepts of spirituality, faith, and prejudice cast the conceptual level of this novel at a higher level, making it more appropriate for students who are 11-15, depending on the background of the specific student. Another example is John Stenbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), which scores at a 2nd-3rd grade level on quantitative measures because it uses familiar words and short sentences through dialogue. Teachers, however, note that the many layers of meaning and mature themes indicate that this book is meant for grades 6 and above.
The Common Core State Standards document recommends the Lexile Framework, but notes that this framework is not accurate or useful for K-1 reading materials, poetry, and complex narrative fiction for young adults. This exclusion of a large number of texts does not take into account the complex issues of global literature where readability formulas cannot evaluate the match between the cultural knowledge of readers and the cultural content and text structures of a particular book. Clearly readers familiar with a specific global culture will find books from that culture to be less complex and more easily understandable. Those readers not only bring strong cultural knowledge but also are familiar with that culture’s style of storytelling and text structures. The assigned Lexile levels will most likely be higher than the actual difficulty of these books for readers who are cultural insiders and have familiarity with the events, people, perspectives, and values at the heart of these books.
Readers from outside that culture will struggle more with that same text. This struggle, however, is important because, in global literature, we want readers to struggle – to recognize that this book cannot easily be fit into their existing perceptions about how people in other cultures think and live. We want them to stumble and have to reread and to feel discomfort as well as to connect with characters and identify common universal experiences and feelings. A book could be much more difficult for a reader than its Lexile level and still be appropriate for that reader.
In addition, quantitative measures of readability fail to identify the influence of a reader’s interest in a particular book or the ways in which that book is integrated into a unit of study in a classroom. These measures assume that the reading of a text is in isolation from other texts, which is rarely the case with global literature because teachers know these books need support. When a book is surrounded by reading other texts and a range of experiences, research, and discussion, that book becomes much more “readable” and less complex for readers, regardless of its assigned Lexile level.
The misconceptions surrounding Lexile levels are partially a result of not carefully reading the actual CCSS documents and appendices and partially a lack of understanding of classrooms and readers by the creators of these documents. In arguing that teachers have not been rigorous and have not adequately considered text complexity, the CCSS creators, in turn, have failed to understand the complexity of real readers in real classrooms engaged in inquiries about compelling tensions and issues. Simplistic assumptions about readers and classrooms do not result in useful understandings about text complexity.
Two articles about the dangers of leveling texts are:
Pierce, Kathryn Mitchell. (1999). “I am a Level 3 Reader”: Children’s Perceptions of Themselves as Readers. The New Advocate, 12 (4), 359-375
Power, Brenda Miller (2003). Leveled Fiction that Could One Day Be True. Language Arts, 81(1), 23-27.
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