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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.