By Malbert Smith III, Ph.D. and Matt Copeland
With the recent release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, there is renewed interest in her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, Brody and Maloney (Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2015) argue that teachers need to rethink how they teach To Kill a Mockingbird in light of the themes in Go Set a Watchman. The timing of this release also corresponds to the five year anniversary of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Regardless of where you land on the merits of the CCSS, it has brought a renewed instructional emphasis on the concepts of text complexity and close reading.
With the next generation of standards’ emphasis on increasing the diet of non-fiction and the number and quality of complex texts that are taught, there was concern among some teachers that many of our canonical texts (particularly fiction) taught in middle and high school did not appear to satisfy the text complexity requirement. For example, when one examines the quantitative leg of the text complexity triangle, To Kill a Mockingbird has a measure of 790L which corresponds to the recommended grade level of 4 to 5 in Appendix A of CCSS. However, when one examines the qualitative and reader/task legs of the triangle, the authors of the CCSS in Appendix B adjust the recommended level to grades 9-10 where this novel is typically taught.
Shanahan and Duffett (2013) reported that, like Mockingbird, seven of the ten most popular books taught in middle school and five of the top ten books taught in high school are not challenging enough on the quantitative index. Against this backdrop ELA teachers in middle and high school have been asking whether these classic books can satisfy the requirements of close reading of complex text. And the answer is that these books are outstanding not only on the quality and reader/task dimensions but also along the dimension of quantitative measures of text complexity. In fact, when we dig a little deeper into these individual works, we often find that there is sufficient complexity—even based upon the quantitative index alone—to warrant their inclusion in our curricula.
But beyond the consideration of what works we teach, another important consideration are the instructional practices that we use to deliver that learning to students. Certainly, close reading and the reader and task considerations within the CCSS text complexity model are essential; they provide the framework for thinking through the kinds of instructional scaffolding we might provide to help students be successful. As classrooms around the country prepare to begin another school year anew, helping practitioners to examine the complexity of a text and even the finer grain details of the quantitative index, might be a rich resource for more data-driven instructional planning.
To this end, MetaMetrics is unveiling the beginnings of a new line of research: chapter-by-chapter graphs (such as the one shown below for Mockingbird [Figure 1]) of the Lexile measures of chapters within an individual work. Our belief is that equipped with this type of information instructional leaders can make decisions on how best to focus their instruction time and thereby have an even more profound positive impact on student learning.
Figure 1. Lexile measures by chapter for To Kill a Mockingbird.
As one can see in Figure 1, while the overall text complexity measure of Mockingbird is 790L within the entire book, there is substantial variation among the individual chapters of the novel. In fact, of the novel’s 31 chapters, 18 chapters fall above the entire work’s Lexile measure of 790L, while only 13 chapters fall below the 790L mark. And while only one chapter (Chapter 20—part of the courtroom scene) falls within the Grades 9-10 text complexity band, five more chapters come within 100L of that range. From this graph, we believe it is easy to see that there are a number of opportunities to present sufficiently complex text to students and to provide the close reading opportunities and instructional scaffolding our students may need.
Interestingly, when we have asked ELA teachers of Mockingbird to predict which specific chapters of the novel might be more complex than others, they typically predict the same ones that the quantitative measures identify. This would seem to support the notion that many practicing classroom teachers are quite adept at selecting texts that provide sufficient complexity for their students’ learning and understand—even intuitively—where the complexity resides. However, making these realities more concrete in our minds offers us a number of opportunities to reflect upon our instruction.
As an extension of this work, we have gone a step farther and also begun to examine each paragraph within a particular chapter. Just as we see variation among the Lexile measures of individual chapters, we see even more variation among the paragraphs within a chapter. For example, when we examined the complexity within Chapter 13 of Mockingbird [Figure 2], it became clear to us that although the overall measure of this chapter is 1020L—just below the text complexity grade band range for Grades 9-10—there does exist a sequence of about 20 paragraphs that overwhelmingly do fall in the text complexity grade band and, in fact, even exceed that grade band in one instance. The opportunities to engage students in close reading of text at the appropriate level within these 20 paragraphs seem rich on the surface. An examination of the content of those paragraphs—the scene where the young narrator of the novel, Scout, comments on the arrival of her Aunt Alexandra, the relationship Alexandra maintains with her brother, Atticus, and her staunch belief in the importance of family and social traditions—confirms the importance of the passage to the novel as a whole. And, perhaps, becomes even more important now given the narrative presented in Go Set a Watchman.
Figure 2. Lexile measures by paragraph for Chapter 13 of To Kill a Mockingbird.
As a former high school ELA teacher, I (Matt) now see how examining and unpacking the empirical text complexity measure of books could have helped me greatly in planning for instruction. For example, I see more clearly now where the opportunities for close reading exist within the novel. I would rethink the reading schedule I typically hand to students at the beginning of the unit to highlight these “peaks” of complexity within the work and spend more time focusing my efforts on providing my students—particularly my struggling readers—the instructional scaffolding they need in order to be successful with these chapters. The possibilities seem endless.
If we desire to meet the ideals embodied in the next generation of standards, educators need time, tools, and resources. Even within the text complexity model itself, such opportunities do exist. Our challenge is to harness these opportunities, embrace them, and empower changes to our curricula and—even more importantly—to our instructional practice.
As we think about the needs of our students and re-think some of our curricula and instruction, Scout’s wisdom and insight from the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, when she finally stands upon Boo Radley’s front porch, seem all that much more relevant: “I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle.”
For more information and to view the collection of available Lexile by Chapter Guides, please visit lexile.com/lexile-by-chapter/.
Brody, L. & Maloney, J. (2014, July 14). Teachers’ new homework: a ‘Watchman’ Plan. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/teachers-new-homework-a-watchman-plan-1436917909
Lee, H. (2015). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins.
Lee, H. (2015). Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins.
Shanahan, T. & Duffett, A. (2013). Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments. Washington DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from http://edexcellence.net/publications/common-core-in-the-schools