Expecting More: Increasing Text Complexity

Mark Pennington recently published a great piece on the importance of teaching increasingly complex levels of text to U.S. students.  Taking his cue from the Common Core Standards Initiative, Pennington argues that:

1. Text complexity is the most important variable in reading comprehension.

2. The level of text complexity in the post-secondary world has remained constant or increased over the past fifty years.

3.  The K-12 level of text complexity has decreased over the past fifty years.

The implications are clear: the text demands of college and career are increasing and students may find themselves increasingly unable to handle the text demands of real-world reading.

Pennington offers a number of implications for K-12 instruction, but three, in particular, stand out.  First, Pennington proposes that students should be reading more expository text.  We’ve written before on the importance of informational text to the growth of a reader.  Nell Duke has found that many U.S. students subsist largely on a diet of fiction or literary text – reading that leaves many students unable to cope with the demands of higher level reading.

Pennington goes on to argue that teachers should establish higher expectations for the level of texts students are expected to read, while paying explicit attention to vocabulary and sentence structure:

Clearly, we teachers need to “up” the level of difficulty of text and provide the scaffolds students need to understand that text. We need to challenge our students to struggle a bit. We can’t focus all of our instruction on the lowest common denominators.

We need to not only analyze sentence and text structure, but also practice variations and complexities in our students’ writing. Good writers are better equipped to understand the complexities of how ideas are presented in academic text. The reading-writing connection is teachable.

Admittedly, not all students read at the same level.  And telling struggling students to ‘read harder’ is not likely to produce adequate results.  Pennington acknowledges as much in his call to differentiate for struggling readers.  Pennington’s reminder on the importance of differentiated text jibes well with the intent of the Lexile Framework.  Knowing the Lexile measure of a student allows educators to target students with the appropriate level of Lexile-linked reading materials, to provide scaffolding for those readers still struggling with particularly complex pieces of text.

Pennington’s call to increase text demand for students as a way to prepare them for the rigors of college and career is a welcome appeal.  With an increasing number of states adopting the common core standards it’s our hope that many more students will begin to engage even tougher levels of text as a way to prepare for the expectations that await them after graduation.

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