Text Complexity Enters the Mainstream. Finally.

I was absolutely delighted to read Catherine Gewertz’s recent blog post, “New Research Expands Thinking on Text Complexity”.  Admittedly, my wife often reminds me that the subjects that interest me induce narcolepsy in others.  But as Gewertz points out, the esoteric subject of text complexity is now part of the national conversation.  The Common Cores State Standards has done a great deal to shine a light on this important topic and text complexity is one of the ten anchor standards within Common Core.  Consequently the conversation on text complexity has moved from the “wonks’ dinner tables to a dinner table near you”.

For a person who has devoted most of his professional life to this topic it is especially gratifying to finally see long overdue attention and recognition given to the importance of text complexity.  When Jack Stenner and I received the initial federal grant in 1984 to begin research around our vision of placing readers and texts on the same scale there were very few researchers focused on this topic.  Fortunately, over a decade of research and support from federal grants we were able to create and develop The Lexile Framework for Reading, a Framework that is now utilized by educators, administrators, and families all over the world.  As vitally important as the need to measure text complexity was the imperative that we build a psychometric model which would allow for the measurement of reading ability on the same scale.  Today, in addition to the millions of articles and thousands of books that have been measured, millions of students get a Lexile reading measure from one of the over 50 assessments that report Lexile reader measures.  For a more thorough overview of our work in this area, please see our recent paper, “Not So Common”.

While we began this research journey began in the early 1980s, we are excited about the currently ongoing research and the advancements that we are continuing to make. We are also doing our part to reach every dinner table by making all of our resources and tools freely available and parent friendly.  For example, over 150,000 educators have used our Lexile Analyzer to measure the text complexity of millions of articles and books.  And, each day thousands of educators, parents, and students use our Find A Book application to build personalized (based on interest and reading level) reading lists and connect to their closest public library.  With more attention being given to this important topic, it’s our hope that educators around the world will be able to utilize the Lexile Framework to ensure that every student is successfully reading grade level material and that every student graduates ready for the rigors of the post-secondary world.

Text Complexity Takes Hold

Given the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity, an increasing number of educators are paying more attention to the complexity of the texts they assign.  Here at MetaMetrics, our focus has always been on understanding the relationship between the reader and the text and utilizing a common metric (Lexile) to characterize that relationship.  That’s why we’re so excited to make two related announcements: first, over 100,000 users have registered to use our free, publicly available Lexile Analyzer tool.  This tool allows users to analyze the complexity of small bits of texts to obtain a Lexile measure.  We’re thrilled to see that so many educators are focused on the complexity various pieces of text and are utilizing this wonderful tool.  If you have not yet tried this tool, click here to register and start using.

On a related note, we’re also happy to announce that 50 new publishers adopted the Lexile measure in 2011.  With the recent shift from proficiency to college and career readiness, school districts around the country are focusing on what it means to be college and career ready, specifically what it means to graduate prepared to read college level text.  With all the recent emphasis on college and career readiness, it is vital that students be introduced to increasingly sophisticated levels of complex texts.  Which is why it’s refreshing to see so many new publishers begin to recognize the significance of text complexity.  These new publishers add to a growing roster of hundreds of publishers that now routinely measure their books using Lexile measures.  Some of these new publishers include American Girl, Black Rabbit Books, Medallion Press, Nomad Press, and many, many more.  To all of our new publisher partners, welcome aboard.

Text Complexity & the Common Core

There has been quite a bit published recently on the Common Core State Standards and what they will mean for teachers in the classroom.  In this recent video, Tim Shanahan argues that it’s not what students are being asked to do with a text that presents the difficulty, but the complexity level of the text itself.  As Shanahan and others have argued:

So why is the common core making such a big deal out of having kids read hard text? One of the most persuasive pieces of evidence they considered was a report, Reading: Between the Lines, published by American College Testing (ACT; 2006)…In Reading: Between the Lines, ACT demonstrates that student performance cannot be differentiated in any meaningful way by question type. Students do not perform differently if they are answering literal recall items or inferential items (or other question types like main idea or vocabulary, either). Test performance, according to ACT, is driven by text rather than questions. Thus, if students are asked to read a hard passage, they may only answer a few questions correctly, no matter what types of questions they may be. On the other hand, with an easy enough text, students may answer almost any questions right, again with no differences by question type.

And here’s ELA standards writer, Sue Pimentel, providing some historical context on why change was needed in ELA and what she considers the key shifts in the ELA standards.  Of particular interest, is the shift in text complexity.  Students will now be expected to read increasingly sophisticated levels of complex text in order to graduate prepared for college and career materials. 

Both videos are worth checking out and provide a succinct explanation on the importance of text complexity in the common core state standards.

A Historic Opportunity, A Worthy Destination

We’ve written extensively on the Common Core State Standards and the role they will play in the future of our nation’s educational system.  To date, 42 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have all shown their support for the Common Core by committing to implement the new national standards by 2014.  These standards set ambitious goals which, as Fernanda Santos of the NY Times reports, “…raise the bar not only on what students in every grade are expected to learn, but also on how teachers are expected to teach.” 

According to Santos, several schools are currently participating in a pilot program which is already highlighting some key differences in how material is being presented, assigned and evaluated.  Teachers are changing their lesson plans, approaching content differently, and being thoughtful in how they challenge their students – all in an effort to move students to the path of college and career readiness.

Supporters of the standards point out that holding all students accountable for the same material regardless of which state they live in will ensure that each child is receiving a quality education and will enable policy members to more accurately evaluate performance. 

Still these standards will be accompanied by their own set of challenges and, as Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped write the common core standards for how to incorporate reading into science instruction explains, “If I’m teaching fifth grade and I have a youngster in my class who reads as a first grader, throwing him a grade level-text is not going to do him any good, no matter what the standards say.”

Shanahan is right, and we’ve addressed this exact issue in the past:

The Lexile Framework for Reading offers a good starting point for educators and parents attempting to make decisions as to whether or not the complexity of a text is well-matched to the reading level of a particular reader.  As articulated by the Common Core State Standards, the Lexile Framework provides a good measure of the quantitative dimensions of a text.  Meaning, the Lexile measure reflects the types of words and sentences used in a particular text; and, when matched to the Lexile reading level of a student, provides useful information on the student’s likely level of comprehension.

Taking a student’s reading level into account is an important first step in providing appropriately matched texts to struggling readers.  By matching readers with the right level of challenge, educators have an opportunity to address students at the right level and to grow each student’s reading ability.  Using the Lexile measure – to gauge student progress and to match materials to the range of readers in a classroom – is an important starting point for advancing the reading level of each student, and for moving each student toward college and career readiness.

 We’re glad to see so many working to implement the standards across the curriculum and As Chester Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration says, “the standards create a historic opportunity in that we now have a destination worth aiming for, but only time will tell if they’ll create historic change.”

Traversing the Texts: An Appreciation of Text Complexity

Here’s Mark Bauerlein over at Education Leadership offering a useful reminder on the importance of the ability to tackle complex texts:

Will more technology in high school classrooms help? Not in the crucial area of reading. When teachers fill the syllabus with digital texts, having students read and write blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like, they do little to address the primary reason that so many students end up not ready for college-level reading. When they assign traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids, they likewise avoid the primary cause of unreadiness.

That cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts…

Bauerlein’s concern is that many of the post-secondary texts with which students must wrestle are inherently ambiguous, e.g. a supreme court decision, a poem, a philosophical treatise, a contract, etc…  Their meanings are best  teased out through a deep and reflective reading.  In addition to being constructively ambiguous, many of the texts with which students must struggle (think Emerson, Nietzsche, Holmes, Freud, etc…) are not capable of being reduced to a few simple pages or bullet points (to paraphrase one philosopher, any system of thought capable of being reduced to a nutshell belongs there…).  Many of our most cherished texts and documents are  expansive, self-contained works, rich in meaning and related to a long canon of work.  As Bauerlein argues, Thoreau’s assertion that he went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately or Nietzsche’s assertions about claims of knowledge are not easily grasped by reading over the first few pages.  The reader is expected to critically reflect over the pages and to locate the writer’s meaning in the fuller context of the writing:

When faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, an epic poem, or an ethical treatise—works characterized by dense meanings, elaborate structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and subtle authorial intentions—college-ready students plod through them. Unready students falter.

This is the sort of task that does not lend itself to distraction.  To paraphrase Bauerlein, a reader trekking through Locke’s political treatises is unlikely to make it very far if they are simultaneously updating their Facebook status, tweeting their latest thought, popping up a blog entry, streaming Pandora, and clicking on hyperlinks through the margins.  For this is not the sort of reading that lends itself to browsers.  Many of our most valuable and cherished texts, the ones most worth reading, reveal their import through a focused and deep absorption into the text.

That’s not to minimize the importance of technology in the classroom or the important role that personalized learning platforms can play in differentiating texts for struggling readers.  And Bauerlein is careful to avoid nostalgic claims about the destructive influence of online reading or the Internet destroying our mental capacities.  Instead, he merely suggests that more attention should be paid to deep and meaningful reading, to the undistracted and focused reading of high level texts; and that time should be set aside to allow students to explore these sophisticated texts in a distraction-free (meaning, unplugged) zone.

In that sense, Bauerlein’s concern echoes what both the Common Core State Standards and a study by Nell Duke have already pointed to: that American students are reading far too little informational texts.  As we’ve written before, for a student raised on a diet of fiction, a strong dose of informational texts may come as a shock to the system.  It’s little wonder then that many students graduate unprepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, that they arrive at the university only to find that even introductory texts present a formidable challenge.   Nell Duke argues that students should be exposed to informational texts at an earlier age and the Common Core State Standards attempts to address that deficiency by pushing for increased exposure to informational texts at a higher rate and at an earlier age.

 Bauerlein’s suggestion is worth considering.  With far too many students finding themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, it’s our hope that encouraging students to tackle higher levels of targeted texts at an earlier age will move them ever closer to the levels of texts they will undoubtedly encounter in life after high school.

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. (more…)

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.