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More on Text Complexity – this time in students’ free reading

In my last response to this NPR article, I wrote about the complexity of texts used in the Language Arts classroom. I decided to break my response into two parts when I realized that I had SO MUCH TO SAY that I could basically go through and argue each point line by line. I won’t do that to you; we’d all be bored. However, even though I do have a lot more to say about text complexity, let me make my main point clear:

 Reading Level does not equal Text Complexity
And to say that it does is an oversimplification of a critical issue. There is so much more involved in text complexity. Comprehension, student interest, past experiences, exposure to culture, literary themes – these are just a few things that need to be taken into account. It’s almost as if those people not involved in education don’t realize that you are seldom going to find a text where all of these match up to create the perfect text for study in a classroom setting, much less when student choice is allowed.
Let’s take, for instance, Anna Karenina (since the NPR article references it.) At a Lexile level of 1080, and an ATOS readability score of 9.6 (ninth grade, about halfway through) it should be readable by most ninth grade students, yes? And when did you read it, if you read it at all? It’s clearly an adult novel with advanced themes and a reliance upon an understanding of a completely foreign, historical society for which most American high school students have little or no frame of reference. If taught well, with a lot of supporting study and information, it might be within the comprehension of advanced high school students. Maybe. I read it in AP English my senior year in high school. I remember just enough that I vaguely understood the party line footnoter phone jokes in Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursday’s is Missing. Or, at least, I understood that they were referencing Anna Karenina.
So, let’s take a step back and look at what our goal is for students’ free reading choices. By free reading choices I’m including anything they get to choose, whether it is somehow counted for school credit or not. Many schools participate in an X Book Challenge (where x = an arbitrary number of books, pages, or minutes), or require students to keep a reading log for homework credit. I am a big proponent of students having a freedom in what to read for this. My main goal, as a school librarian, is neatly summed up by the last paragraph of the NPR article:

“Reading leads to reading, says Silvey. It’s when kids stop reading, or never get started in the first place, that there’s no chance of ever getting them hooked on more complex books.”

We need the students to be READERS, first, and to worry about WHAT they are reading second, or third, or maybe even not at all. For an interesting take on this, you may want to go read this article at Book Riot. When students are encouraged to pursue their personal interests and given open access to a wide variety of well marketed, attractive reading materials, most will become readers with very little coercion on the part of adults.

For an illustration of what this looks like, I present to you the materials my nephew (aged 11 – almost 12, about to enter 6th grade) was reading when he came for a visit last week. Some of these were books he brought with him, some were books I had purchased at my school’s book fair, some were purchased at the local book store on his first day here:

Some of them are well below his reading level, some right at, some well above. But all of them include things he is interested in, and I actually saw him reading all of them at different points during the week. His parents think he’s ‘not a big reader.’ *bangs head on table* I would do anything if my students were even halfway this interested in reading.

Would it be ideal for my students to read ever more increasingly complex materials? Maybe. If they remained engaged and involved readers who were exposed to a variety of ideas and information that would help them to become well educated, actively participating, empathetic members of society. But at any level, I agree with Silvey – reading leads to reading – and that is what’s important.

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