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08.03.13On Text Complexity and Reading: Part 1, The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader

text complexityThe Common Core standards, as you probably know, push teachers to read harder text. Specifically, the designers have suggested increasing difficulty level of the average text by two years.  We’re with them on the idea of harder texts but how to measure text difficulty is a challenge.

Common Core uses Lexiles, a quantitative measure of sentence. There are benefits to Lexiles and limitations.  The benefits mostly coalesce around the idea that they are easy to use and measure- quick and simple—and that they are objective.

The fact that Lexiles are so quantifiable and that Common Core has been explicit about their use makes them easy to operationalize. We took the Common Core exemplar texts by grade level, for example and inferred a target range for our teachers to use in choosing texts. You can see it on this chart:

Lexile Graphs.Part1

This seemed really useful and helpful, but then we went a step further and mapped some of our favorite books to the target ranges we got. We were pretty surprised by what we found. You can see what that looked like here.

Lexile Graphs.Part2

The net is that Lexiles recall the old phrase about accountants- they’d rather be precisely wrong than generally right.

It’s not just that some of our favorite books don’t measure up on the Lexile scale, but that often those very same books are the ones we think are eminently rigorous. And they sometimes scored lower than ones we think of as less rigorous.  I’m pretty sure Lord of the Flies is a good and challenging book for 8th graders, for example, even though it’s below the implied target range.  And while I LOVE the The Watson’s Go To Birmingham, I’m not sure it’s a harder read for most students than Lord of the Flies which is full of mid-century syntax, British phrasing and allusions to cultural events my students know nothing about.  In short we realized Lexiles are useful but flawed. So we set out to find other ways to measure text complexity.

What we came up with is the five plagues of the developing reader—five forms of text complexity that are especially challenging and important AND that all students need to have extensive experience with during their school years if they want to hope to compete in college.

They are:

Archaic Language—The vocabulary, usage, syntax and context for cultural reference of texts over 50 or 100 years old are vastly different and typically more complex than texts written today. Students need to be exposed to and develop proficiency with antiquated forms of expression to be able to hope to read James Madison, Frederick Douglas and Edmund Spenser when they get to college.

Here for example are the first lines of Great Expectations: My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

The sentences are short and simple, the words simple. On a Lexile scale this passage would score low, but the stylistic differences in a text of this vintage make it daunting to most students to say the least. And they must learn not to be intimidated by older discourse.

Non-Linear Time Sequences: In passages written exclusively for students—or more specifically for student assessments—time tends to unfold with consistency. A story is narrated in a given style with a given cadence and that cadence endures and remains consistent, but in the best books, books where every aspect of the narration is nuanced to create an exact image, time moves in fits and start. It doubles back.  To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is written from Scout’s perspective as she looks back at events from her childhood that happened when she was about 9. But some of her memories are of memories that happened earlier or later. Or that happened repeatedly during her childhood.  The narrative shifts seamlessly from “One day Atticus was,” to “Atticus often did” without calling this shift to the reader’s attention. To understand the book you have to catch these subtle shifts. The only way to master such books is to have read them time and again and to be carefully introduced to them by a thoughtful teacher or parent.

Misleading/Narratively Complex—Books are sometimes narrated by an unreliable narrator- Scout, for example, who doesn’t understand and misperceives some of what happened to her. Or the narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” who is a madman out of touch with reality.  Other books have multiple narrators such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  Others have non-human narrators such as the horse that tells the story in Black Beauty.  Some books have multiple intertwined and apparently (for a time) unrelated plot lines. These are far harder to read than books with a single plot line and students need to experience these as well. They define rigor at least as much as Lexiles though Lexiles clearly don’t contemplate them.

So too Figurative/Symbolic Text which, like Animal Farm or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron” happen on an allegorical or symbolic level. Not reflected in Lexiles; critical forms of text complexity that students must experience.

Finally there are Resistant Texts—texts written to deliberately resist easy meaning-making by readers.  Perhaps half of the poems ever written fall into this category.  You have to assemble meaning around nuances, hints, uncertainties and clues.  So too a book like Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Anyway, we’ve taken to using these “Five Plagues” as markers of text complexity and to explicitly ask our teachers to expose students to books that feature them to ensure the rigor of their reading and their preparedness for college.  In my next post I’ll provide more explicit examples from To Kill a Mockingbird that show how subtle pervasive and important the factors can be.

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  • Amy Youngblood

    Actually, the CCSS say to use a three part model to measure text complexity with Lexiles (Quantitative) being one of the three parts. Qualitative and Reader/Task measures make up the other two parts. Teachers only using Lexiles will find themselves questioning the logic of using Lord of the Flies with younger students, as they should. The Kansas State Department of Education has done a fantastic job of creating tools for the Qualitative and Reader/Task measures. I do like the “five plagues” as you call them for helping determine text complexity.