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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.

Text complexity in the Language Arts classroom, a school librarian’s perspective

Last week, NPR published a piece online to accompany an on air piece from All Things Considered regarding text complexity in assigned student reading and the reading students do in their free time. That piece is available here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/06/11/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-in-school-and-out. I would encourage you (against conventional wisdom) to read the comments.

While I realize the piece is mostly addressing reading in high school, the new CCSS emphasis on text complexity affects education at all levels, and the piece has been causing a whirlwind of thoughts in my mind over the dual need to prepare students to read, interpret, and analyze complex text and to prepare them to be active and engaged lifelong learners. Both are truly needed if we are to produce students who will be highly functional contributing members of society.  The key is figuring out how to do one without losing the other.

So first, let’s address the issue of assigning a text complexity ‘score’ to any particular piece of writing. Leaving aside my issues with their misuse, there are two main leveling scores in common use (ie, you don’t need extra funds to access the score). The first is Renaissance Learning’s Book Level score. Here, from their web site, is an explanation of how they assign a Book Level using the ATOS system:

“ATOS is the product of an intensive research process and takes into account the most important predictors of text complexity—average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage. It is reported on a grade-level scale so that both student achievement and books share the same easy-to-interpret metric.”

More information can be found here: http://www.renlearn.com/default.aspx. The second is the Lexile Measure, explained on their web site:

“A Lexile text measure is based on two strong predictors of how difficult a text is to comprehend: word frequency and sentence length. Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered.”

More information about Lexile Measures is available here: http://www.lexile.com/ .

As a middle school librarian, I believe that the Lexile statement addresses the ‘elephant in the room’ – measuring word and sentence difficulty only addresses one part of the equation. For instance, a book addressed in the NPR article, Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins has a Book Level measurement of 5.3, which means that Renaissance Learning’s ATOS system judges it to be at a 5th grade reading level. The Lexile level for Hunger Games is 810L, which, according to my state’s reporting of end of year reading performance, puts it solidly within 4th grade reading level. While I am sure there are individual fourth and fifth graders who are capable of fully understanding and internalizing the main issues and themes found in Hunger Games, most of the students I’ve worked with don’t begin to be able to do this until 7th grade. Incidentally, this is the grade level where our class sets of Hunger Games reside.

The language arts teachers in my building constantly strive to find and include novels, plays, poems, short stories, biographies, etc. that will be ENGAGING to their students. If the students aren’t engaged, they won’t be learning anything. Does this mean that everything used in class needs to be at a reduced reading level, or that nothing at a high reading level can be engaging? No. It means that it is the responsibility of the teacher and the librarian to seek out and use a variety of resources so that the students are exposed to materials that are either intrinsically engaging at their developmental level, or are made engaging by the way they are taught.

I’ll end with an example from this past school year. One day, one of my most creative language arts teachers called me with a request for materials that filled my geeky librarian heart with glee. She wanted articles and reference selections on the following topics: the history of science fiction literature, nuclear weapons, Ba’al, Sara Teasdale (poet), the Manhattan Project, and Ray Bradbury (among several others.) You see, she was going to be teaching her class using Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains.” She both wanted to make sure her students would be familiar with the background information needed to really understand the story and to make sure that they were exposed to rigorous and complex texts (since the story is part of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which has a lexile level of 740 and is well below what she was advised to use with her students.) The students formed groups which worked together to explore the articles on a particular topic and become ‘class experts,’ giving a presentation on their topic to the rest of the class.

Judging students’ learning, and their ability to read, interpret, and analyze complex text based on just the level of difficulty of the words and sentences in a reading is not just an incomplete picture. It dismisses the time and effort of both the teacher and the students.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. Next time I will discuss text complexity and students’ free reading choices.

Top 10s: Books I would have like to have seen on the NPR list

Yesterday we talked about the 100 Best Young Adult Books list put together by NPR.  Today, I am going to share with you 10 books that I would have liked to have seen on the list and why.

Click here to see the Top 100 Young Adult Books on the NPR list
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
I mentioned it in my post yesterday, but I think this title should have been on the list.  First, it was a Printz Award winning book (2000).  Second, it helped usher in the trend that introduces teens to alternate style formats.  In this case, Monster is written as a movie manuscript.  Then, of course, you have the fact that this is an important multicultural title by a major, long standing, award winning author.  So major that Walter Dean Myers is this year’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
For me, it is hard to imagine any best of YA list without the presence of Chris Crutcher.  He writes authentic teen fiction.  The problem is, which title to choose?  For me it is a toss up between Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes and Whale Talk.  At the end of the day, I guess I am going to choose Whale Talk because it talks about major themes, such as bullying and prejudice, and does it with a touch of humor.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game has been a hands down teen favorite in the science fiction genre for years.  Teens still come in and ask for it by name.  Fantasy is definitely over represented in the list, so let’s give Science Fiction its due.  Plus, it is supposedly coming to a movie theater near you next year and it should rejuvenate some interest in this title.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
I could also live with Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.  Either way, there needs to be a few more historical fiction titles and A Northern Light is a Printz Honor Book (2004).
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King
Honestly, I really just want to see A. S. King on the list.  I could live with Please Ignore Vera Dietz or Everybody Sees the Ants.  But in truth, I see Ask the Passengers as being on a future list.  Just pick an A. S. King title and go with it.
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
Boy Meets Boy was being bold and courageous and speaking out about the life of GLBT teens before most authors were.  It opened the door for so many to share their stories.  It has touched lives and changed minds.
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
This title is covering so much that is missing on the list: It is a great multicultural title, it is a problem novel, it discusses the topic of teen parenting, and it is the 2004 Printz Award Winner.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Here we see the popular graphic novel format represented.  In addition, this 2007 Printz Award Winner helps bring more cultural diversity to the list, which is greatly needed.  Other GNs that could certainly find themselves on the list include Maus, Bone and Blankets.
The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klaus
Before vampires sparkled or went to the academy, they haunted a young girl named Zoe whose mother was dying of cancer.  This is an award winning vampire novel that encompasses everything that is wonderful about ya lit and still connects with readers today.
Holes by Lois Sachar
Okay, one could argue that this novel is really more of a MG novel.  But it is brilliant and funny, and funny is definitely a category that is under-represented on the list. 
I’m going to cheat here and add an #11 and #12
Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
Why am I willing to cheat for this series?  1) One can not deny the popularity of zombies, and dystopian fiction, these last few years in teen fiction. 2) This is a really well written addition to the genre. And 3) It gives us another multicultural title – the main characters are Japanese – to add to our list.

BZRK by Michael Grant
Why this title?  Like Walter Dean Myers ushering in the alternate writing style with Monster, Michael Grant introduces readers to another new reading trend with transmedia.  With BZRK, Grant combines traditional books with teens interest in the online world.  Plus, it’s another great science fiction title that taps into current trends and themes.  And you can’t deny Grant’s long standing contribution to MG and YA literature.  If I was going to add one more Science Fiction title to the list, I would probably add the Hourglass series by Myra McEntire – but I should probably stop cheating now.

So, what titles do you want to add to the list?  What do you think of my additions?

Best or Favorite? A look at the NPR “Best” Young Adult Novels list

I watch So You Think You Can Dance every week without fail.  Here is a show where you can call in and vote for your “favorite” dancer.  This favorite part is important, every year they make a point of making this distinction: it is not the best dancer, but your favorite.  Because that’s how voting works usually, it’s subjective.

Best implies perhaps the highest quality while favorite implies the most popular.  And, truthfully, if you are asking the people to vote you are going to end up with the most popular.  So when NPR puts out it’s list of the Best 100 Young Adult Novels that have been voted on by the public, what you are really getting is some combination of both the best and everyone’s favorites.

NPRs Best Young Adult Novels
Did your favorites make the list?

One look at the list and you see the truth of this statement.  The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers appears at number 27.  Had the vote been taken just a few years earlier, before it became fashionable to hate Twilight, I am sure it would have appeared in the top 10.  But still, in terms of quality of writing and storytelling, even 27 seems incredibly high when you compare it to some of the other books that made the list farther down – and some of those that didn’t make the list at all.  My favorite comment on Reddit: “List totally invalidated by the presence of Twilight.”

If you are on the Yalsa-bk listserv, then last week you saw a really informative post by author David Lubar.  He took a quick moment to do a Google search and found that many authors and fans actively campaigned for others to vote for their favorite books.  As someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, this is not surprising to me at all.  But it does remind us all that the Internet voting is not a perfect mechanism for developing lists, unless of course your goal is popularity.  So perhaps if they had just changed what they called the list, not the “best” but “favorite”, it would have been an accurate statement.

I’ll be honest, I did not vote.  Not because I don’t care, I obviously care very much about teen literature, but because as soon as I realized the mechanism they were employing to create the list I realized that it would be a deeply flawed list.  Compare the idea of the NPR Best Young Adult Books list to the Teens Top 10s put together each year by Yalsa – and voted on by the public.  The Teens Top 10 list explicitly states that it is a “teens choice” list where teens nominate and then vote on their favorite books from the previous year.  You see the distinction there?  They aren’t saying they are the best, but that the teens declare these their favorites.  Semantics are important.

If you have looked at the NPR list you probably will have noticed what Debbie Reese, Laurie Halse Anderson and others have noticed: the list is incredibly white.  I mean super white.  There are only a couple of titles that have a main character that it a person of color. I won’t talk a lot about that because the previously mentioned people have covered it so well, but it is disappointing.  And not at all reflective of the literature that I see on my shelves.  Don’t get me wrong, I think there needs to be a lot more diversity on our library shelves, but this list totally neglects longstanding popular authors like Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Draper and Jacqueline Woodson.  In fact Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a groundbreaking – and award winning – book and definitely deserves to be on this list.

I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere, but the list also doesn’t seem to include many LGBTQ titles at all.  Where is Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan? How about Annie on My Mind?  A brief look at the list shows that it includes The Perks of Being a Wallflower (without a doubt an amazing read), Will Grayson Will Gryason and the Dangerous Angels series.  Is the lack of LGBTQ and POC titles representative of who votes, what we read, or what gets published?  Whatever the issue, it is clear that we need to work harder on reaching diversity goals.  (Side note: I actually think that the problem novel, one of the classic mainstays of young adult literature, is under represented on this list as well.  I know right now that fantasy and dystopian is super popular, but where are the problem novels?  Thankfully Speak made the list.)

My other question regarding this list would be around the voting mechanism, which I can’t actually speak about because as I mentioned, I didn’t vote.  But I would have loved for them to have kept track of the age of voters and created separate lists.  What does the list look like if only teens vote?  What does the list like if only librarians and educators vote?  What does the list look like if all adults – including educators and librarians – but no teen votes are counted?  It would be interesting to compare the various lists, and I suspect there would be some major differences.

And finally, I am interested in some of the titles that they classify as young adult.  To Kill a Mockingbird is without a doubt one of my favorite books and I would say one of the best books written, but is it young adult?  I would ask the same of The Lord of the Rings series?  Something can be popular with young adults but not be actually a young adult book.  We can all look back at what we read as a teen, and look at what our teens often read now, and recognize that a lot of teens like to read adult authors, which is cool.  Just because something is popular with young adults doesn’t mean that it is in fact a young adult novel.  Of course what, exactly, constitutes a young adult novel is probably the guts of an entirely different post and is further complicated by the introduction of the New Adult genre.

Overall, I think the list is a great starting place for new readers of young adult books to begin reading; it definitely is a good look at what is popular with my teens over the last few years.  As much as I love John Green, I would knock a couple of his books off the list – leaving The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska – and add some multicultural authors.  I was ecstatic to see the Delirium series and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children on the list.  I kind of felt that Miss Peregrine didn’t get the love that it deserved when it came out.  There is some good stuff on the list.  There is some fun stuff on the list (I LOVE the Gallagher girls series).  But is this list representative of THE BEST? I guess it depends on how we are defining the best.

So here’s my question to you: If we made the list again in 10 years, what titles from 2012 do you think will stand the test of time and make an appearance?  And what diversity titles do you think should have made the cut this year?
Also, what is the most surprising title on the list for you?  For me it is The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.