The Complexities of Text Complexity

By Kathy Short, Director of Worlds of Words

Debates about text complexity and “appropriate” books for students at each grade level are a major point of emphasis in U.S. schools due to the influence of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Even in states that did not adopt these standards, such as Arizona, similar state-developed standards are guiding policies and instructional practices. The belief that students will become more effective readers if they read difficult texts that continuously increase in complexity with each grade level lies at the heart of the standards. This belief has led to increasing reliance on labeling books according to their Lexile levels and on core reading lists of books for each grade level, restricting students to reading books at those levels. This series of blog posts challenges the assumptions that underlie the current emphasis on text complexity and provides suggestions for engaging students with books that reflect the lives of culturally diverse children/adolescents and the global society in which they live.

The Complexities of Text Complexity in Common Core State Standards

This first blog overviews the issues related to text complexity and the text complexity exemplars that were developed by the Common Core. Allington, McCuiston and Billen (2015) cite research to challenge claims by the authors of the Common Core that school texts have been decreasing in complexity over time and that reading hard texts is necessary for reading achievement. These researchers provide extensive research evidence that problematize these beliefs. First, they cite multiple studies showing that school texts have not been declining in complexity but are significantly more complex at Grades 1-3 and have remained stable at grade 6 and above. Second, they cite a wide range of studies that indicate the negative outcomes of giving students, especially readers who struggle, texts that are too hard for them. These studies indicate that when students are forced to read difficult texts, the result is decreased reading engagement, less time spent reading, and lower comprehension of those texts. They argue that the research currently available supports the use of texts that students can read with at least 95% accuracy for instructional purposes. The fluency with which they can engage with these texts allows them to remain on task during reading and to understand what they are reading—findings that directly contradict assumptions built into the Common Core. Insisting that all students at a grade level must read a specific Lexile level of text is not research-based or best practice. Instead students need books that reflect their own needs, interests, and abilities as readers.

The Common Core documents include Appendix B, consisting of excerpts from exemplars to provide examples of texts considered appropriate in complexity for a grade level band. While these exemplars were intended as demonstrations of complexity, many districts assumed that the exemplars constituted recommended reading lists. This assumption is problematic for many reasons. One is that many of the texts are dated; for example, most of the K-1 fiction texts are 40-50 years old while the majority of the 11-12 fiction texts are adult classics, most of which are 100-200 years old. In addition, the texts are overwhelming White and Western in authorship and perspective, with few texts that reflect the diversity of the U.S., let alone the world. Although the exemplars include well-known books of high literary quality that will continue to be significant for readers, the lack of global perspectives and books aimed at teens as an audience is striking. The language and text structures in these adult classics tend to be formal and archaic with an absence of images of contemporary life, let alone of cultural diversity.

Given concerns about the problematic nature of the text complexity exemplars along with their widespread use in schools, we developed a project at Worlds of Words, supported by CERCLL, to create global book lists. We created lists of global books for both fiction and nonfictions so that each Common Core exemplar in a grade level band is paired with 2-4 global books with similar themes and complexity. We wanted to provide educators with global possibilities to extend students’ reading and thinking. The book lists were selected through extensive search strategies and criteria that include:
• The global book is in print and available in the U.S.
• Topics/themes in the global books are appropriate for use in schools and connect to the themes and/or plots in the exemplar books.
• Text complexities are similar for the global books and the exemplar books.

We considered multiple factors related to text complexity, including our judgement as educators with years of experience interacting with students from many cultural backgrounds. We considered, but did not limit ourselves, to readability formulas, such as Lexile levels that assume longer and less familiar words and long sentences automatically make a text more difficult. Although sentence length and word choice are important, student knowledge, experience, cultural heritage and interest in a topic cannot be factored into a formula. The formulas also have difficulty measuring conceptual difficulty, complexity of ideas and ways these ideas are presented. Symbolism, abstraction and figurative language contribute to complexity of ideas, just as nonlinear plots or shifting points of view contribute to the complexity of the plot. These factors, however, do not take into consideration the reader’s own background related to these ideas and plots.

Our search for books with similar themes and text complexity involved examining:
• Book award lists, especially the Outstanding International Book List from USBBY, and the books in the Worlds of Words data base.
• Text complexity factors, including the length of the book, the Lexile level, Fountas and Pinnell levels and other published reading levels for books.
• Themes, topics and plots that provide points of connection across books.
• Global settings of books to pair with classic texts.
• Books that reflect a specific cultural location and values, rather than a generic location without connection to a specific cultural perspective or values.

This final criterion was more difficult to determine in relation to fantasies, particularly the many fantasy picturebooks with generic settings (a forest). As we looked across hundreds of picturebooks and fantasy novels and considered the cultural values at the heart of a book, we worked to distinguish between a book with a generic setting but specific cultural perspectives and values, and those that remained generic in settings, values and cultural traditions.

In addition to the pairings of Common Core exemplars with global books, we found outstanding global books that were not a match with an exemplar text but provided excellent possibilities for readers to explore global cultures outside the U.S. This realization led us to develop recommended lists of additional global fiction and nonfiction as well as the paired lists of global fiction and nonfiction with text exemplars.

These extensive lists of global books are available on the Worlds of Words website and will be updated once a year with new books. Although we used the grade level bands suggested by Common Core to organize the books, we are not advocating that readers be restricted to books only listed in a grade level band. Another caution, of course, is that the familiarity of readers with a specific global culture has a major impact on the ease or difficulty of that book for a particular reader.

This series of blogs focuses on these global book lists. Next week’s blog discusses the range of issues that emerged in examining the complexities of the text exemplars and in locating global books with similar complexities. The following two blogs highlight the global pairs of books at K-5 and then at 6-12, sharing examples of the paired books and instructional opportunities in using these books.

Allington, D., McCuiston, K, & Billen, M. (2015). What research says about text complexity and learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 66 (7), 491-501.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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