Globalizing Reading and Standards in K-12 Classrooms and Libraries
The Common Core State Standards and their variations have influenced K-12 curriculum, particularly in the teaching of literacy across the United States and in many international schools across the world. This project addresses one specific aspect of these standards that relates to the books students are reading in their classrooms for instructional and personal purposes.
The developers of the standards believed that students need to engage with texts that gradually increase in difficulty of ideas and textual structures as they move through the grades. Grade-level lists and excerpts of text exemplars were gathered so educators could experience examples of increasing text complexity; however, these exemplars have been misinterpreted as mandated reading lists. This misinterpretation of the text complexity exemplars is particularly problematic because many of the texts selected for inclusion based on their complexity are dated and lacking in diversity. The overrepresentation of classics that do not reflect the cultural diversity of students’ lives and communities is problematic from many perspectives, one of which is that students soon conclude that books are of little relevance to their personal lives, discouraging their continued engagement as readers.
Another issue related to the text complexity exemplars is the emphasis on only one aspect of complexity, that of readability formulas, particularly Lexile levels. The Common Core documents point out that there are three dimensions, only one of which is readability; the other two are the informed decisions of teacher and librarians about the difficulty of a text and the fit between a particular text and a reader. This overreliance on Lexile levels has resulted in limiting the books that students are allowed to read to a particular Lexile range without consideration of other complexity factors.
Our goal in this project was to provide a global list of books to globalize the classic/well-known texts read in many classrooms. We searched for well-reviewed global literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that fit with K-12 curriculum and with the interests of readers.
The global lists of paired fiction and nonfiction texts along have been placed into the grade level bands, although we see these bands as arbitrary and varying by reader. In determining whether to place a book into a grade level band, we used Lexile Levels, Fountas and Pinnell Levels, book length, and other information available on the books as well as our evaluations as educators based on all three criteria for evaluating complexity. Since one of those criteria is the fit with a particular reader, users of these lists will always need to take into account the actual individual reader who has a particular background of knowledge and experiences.
The Limitations of Leveling to Consider Text Complexity
While we put the books into grade level bands and provided complexity information, we did so with a great deal of trepidation because of the problematic nature of leveling. We want to provide educators with a sense of the book’s difficulty but are aware that the true complexity of a book depends on the reader’s interests and experiences, the purpose of reading the book, and the context within which a book is read. The grade level bands are thus only a beginning point in making actual instructional decisions. We have provided a range of information on each book for that reason.
Readability formulas such as Lexiles assume 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 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 (Almond, 1999) is a British 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 Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), which scores at a 2nd-3rd grade level on quantitative measures because it uses familiar words and short sentences as part of dialogue. 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. Lexiles also do not accurately measure the readability of graphic novels and novels in verse, which are increasingly prevalent in young adult novels. This exclusion of a large number of texts does not take into account the complex issues of global literature where readability formulas do not 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 readers to stop and 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 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 assumption that texts are read independently of each other is based in old models of literary instruction at high school and college levels that no longer reflect actual practice in classrooms, especially in elementary classrooms where teachers often embed informational and literary texts within rich units of inquiry. In addition, the belief that readers should read only books at one level does not match our practices as readers outside of school and does not support readers in developing the strategies needed to engage with a range of texts.
Finally, in looking at the text complexity exemplars selected by the Common Core, we found that often, particularly at the higher-grade levels, the actual range of Lexile levels for the exemplars was outside the band recommended by Common Core—clear evidence that they considered more than Lexile levels when selecting the books. We also noted that the Lexile levels for fiction were often too low; they did not reflect the actual conceptual difficulty of the books, especially for grades 9-12 where difficult issues were the focus of the book. In contrast, the Lexile levels for informational texts were often too high, since those levels are only computed on the text sections and the books themselves had many photographs, charts, graphs, and documents with only short sections of text. In addition, these books have more specialized vocabulary that increase Lexile levels but may not actually make the text more difficult to read because they are used in context.
We did include the Lexile information on both the CC exemplars and the global books, when that information was available, realizing that this information can be useful if it’s one factor being considered along with many others. We also realize that some educators are in contexts where administrators are requiring them to use Lexile levels in making decisions on books for use in classrooms.
As a reminder, the Common Core does not promote the use of only Lexile levels in evaluation of a book. These are the three criteria for evaluating a book’s complexity:
1. Qualitative dimensions of text complexity—informed decisions by teachers and librarians about the difficulty of a text based on their judgments about the influences of these aspects on a specific reader:
a. Levels of Meaning and Purpose. Determining greater or less complexity based on how many layers of meaning are in the text and whether the purpose of the text is implicit or clearly stated.
b. Structure. Examining if the text is organized around a simple, well-marked and conventional structure that readers will quickly recognize or a structure that is unusual and seldom used, involving elements such as flashbacks or complex graphics.
c. Language Conventionality and Clarity. Examining whether the text uses clear, literal, contemporary language or relies on figurative, ambiguous, archaic, academic or unfamiliar language.
d. Knowledge Demands. Evaluating assumptions about the types of life experiences and cultural or content knowledge that readers will bring to a particular text.
2. Quantitative Dimensions of Text Complexity—computerized readability formulas that rate a text on word familiarity, word length, and sentence length, based on the assumption that unfamiliar words, long words, and long sentences increase complexity.
a. Possible formulas include the Fry Readability Graph, the Dale-Chall Readability Formula, the Lexile Framework, the Accelerated Reader ATOS formula, and Coh-Metrix.
b. CCSS recommends the Lexile Framework Framework (www.lexile.com; Schnick, 2000), but notes that this framework does not provide accurate levels for K-1 reading materials, poetry, and complex narrative fiction for young adults.
3. Reader and Task Considerations related to the Texts—considering the fit between a text and a specific reader who is engaging in a particular task with that text.
a. Experiences and strategies of the reader including cognitive abilities, motivation, interest, knowledge, and experiences.
b. Task that the reader is asked to engage in with a particular text.
The Value of Global Literature
Our goal in creating these lists of global books is to encourage educators to immerse readers in powerful stories of fiction and nonfiction set in global cultures. Literature provides an opportunity for students to go beyond a tourist perspective of gaining surface-level information about another culture. Because literature expands children’s life spaces, they travel outside the boundaries of their lives to other places, times, and ways of living in order to participate in alternative ways of being in the world. Readers are invited to immerse themselves into story worlds to gain insights about how people around the world live, feel, and think—to develop emotional connections and empathy as well as knowledge. These connections go beyond the surface knowledge of celebrations, food, and facts about a country to the values and beliefs that lie at the core of each culture. Readers also go beyond the mass media emphasis on catastrophe, terrorism and war that often results in superficial views, fear and stereotypes.
By integrating global literature into classrooms and libraries, students are challenged to understand and accept those who differ from themselves, thus breaking cycles of oppression and prejudice between diverse cultures. As students read these books, they come to recognize the common feelings and needs they share with people around the world, as well as to value the unique differences each culture adds to the richness of our world. Through reading books from global cultures, students come to know their own cultures as well as the world beyond their homes. They see how people of the world view themselves, not just how we view them.
The term “global literature” refers to any book that is set in a global setting outside of the reader’s own global location. For those of us from the U.S., global literature is books set outside of the U.S. with authors coming from the U.S. as well as from within the global culture, This definition needs to remain flexible based on how readers define their cultural location, not how we define them; for example, children who are recent immigrants to the U.S. may have a primary affiliation with their home country and so see U.S. books as global literature or see themselves as binational with both the U.S. and their home country as their cultural location and any other location as global.
One type of global literature is “international literature,” books that were first written and published in another country for the children of that country before being published in the U.S. International books include those from English-speaking countries, such as the Harry Potter series, and books that are translated before being published in the U.S. “Multicultural literature” refers to books that highlight the lives of people from marginalized and underrepresented groups within the U.S. and are not highlighted on these lists.
The global books included on the recommended lists include books set in global cultures written by authors from the United States as well as the international books first published in another culture. We have been selective and so there are many other excellent books that are not included. Our focus was books that we evaluated as a good fit with school curriculum and that had strong cultural connections. Some global books, particularly picturebooks that are fantasy, do not have cultural markers of context or cultural values that indicate a global focus.
Educators who want more comprehensive lists of global children’s and adolescent literature are encouraged to access the Worlds of Words website (wowlit.org) and the book search feature on that site.
We invite your comments and recommendations for how we can continue to develop these recommended lists of global books so that they are useful in K-12 classrooms and libraries. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments.
Note: This project was funded by CERCLL, the Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language and Literacy, University of Arizona. CERCLL is a Title VI Language Resource Center that supports research related to language teaching and learning and provides educators with quality resources for teaching as well as professional development for the meaningful integration of culture, literacy, and world language study. Explore their website and learn more about how CERCLL is working to develop language capacity in the U.S.
Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, 2021