Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 9

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY

Research Synthesis
Text Complexity
12-9-15
Katie L. Warren
CIL 699
University of Nevada Las Vegas

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


Introduction
Why is it harder for students to read some books than others? How can we as educators
assist students in selecting texts that will challenge them without frustrating them? What criteria
can educators follow in selecting complex texts that will increase our students reading
achievement most effectively? How will students comprehend what is going on in a text that is
complex but too advanced for them? How complex, is too complex? By adding text complexity
as a dimension of literacy, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts brings
questions like these to the fore. (Heibert, 2013). With the recent implementation of the Common
Core State Standards (CCSS), reading instruction in classrooms throughout the United States has
been significantly impacted by the focus on text complexity. Professional discourse is now
heavily focused on the use and implementation of complex texts to teach literature and
informational reading standards across all grade levels.
As a teacher who taught several years prior to the implementation of the CCSS, left the
field of education in 2010 during the initial roll out of the standards and returned to the
classroom in 2013 with the expectation of implementing the CCSS in my daily instruction, text
complexity has been challenging for several reasons. While text complexity is not a new concept
to me, there has been very little training or guidance from the school district on what criteria
teachers should use when selecting complex texts. Also, when I returned to the classroom, I
discovered that many schools had done away with the curriculia which were in place prior to the
CCSS, leaving many teachers with little to no resources to teach these rigorous new standards.
While I am happy to no longer be required to follow scripted curriculums and welcome the
creativity that comes with such freedom, schools have been slow to provide teachers with class
sets of texts and materials that meet the required complexity of the CCSS. In addition, my years
as an educator have been spent educating students who are considered to be English language
learners. My ELL students struggled with the previous standards and I am concerned that the
level of text complexity required by the CCSS puts these students at an even bigger disadvantage
to be academically successful. I chose to focus this research on text complexity in hopes of
gaining a more concrete understanding of what it is, how to use it to help my students be
successful and how to appropriately select complex texts for my reading instruction.
Selecting the topic for this research synthesis came to me during the process of preparing
for and delivering my groups workshop presentation. My group initially decided on the topic of
informational text and extended the topic to the Common Core State Standards and how policy
cascades can affect a teachers knowledge, understanding and classroom implementation of the
CCSS. The study selected for the workshop was Teaching Under Policy Cascades: Common Core
and Literacy Instruction, by Aimee Papola-Ellis. In this article, Papola-Ellis (2014) outlined three
instructional shifts in literacy with the CCSS: text dependent questions, text complexity and balancing
informational and literary texts. This idea of policy cascades really made me reflect on my own

understanding, interpretation, and implementation of the CCSS in my classroom, particularly in


regards to text complexity.
This paper will examine various aspects of text complexity. This includes a definition of

text complexity per the authors of the Common Core State Standards, three inter-related factors
that assist educators in determining text complexity, the CCSS text exemplars, and text
complexity and its impact on the academic achievement of English language learners.

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


What is Text Complexity?
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were developed by the National Governors
Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers
(CCSSO). The authors of the CCSS have identified text complexity as one of the three
instructional shifts that come with the new standards and define text complexity as the inherent
difficulty of reading and comprehending a text combined with consideration of reader and task
variables (NGACBP & CCSSO, 2010 Appendix A, Glossary of Key Terms, p. 43). It is believed
that being able to read complex text independently and proficiently is necessary for high
achievement in college, careers and numerous life tasks (NGA & CCSSO, 2010).
Anchor Standard 10
Text complexity is best addressed in Anchor Standard 10 of the CCSS which states,
Read and comprehend literary and informational texts independently and proficiently (NGA,
2010 p.10). Though this standard sounds simple, it is far more complicated as many students
struggle to read on or above grade level texts independently and proficiently. Breaking down the
standard allows teachers to better understand its difficulty and implications. Fisher & Frey
(2013) explain:
Read and comprehend serves as a reminder that the ability to make meaning is the
ultimate goal, and that carefully crafted instruction on decoding and comprehension
strategies are fundamental. Literary and informational texts include a wide range of
genres and text types, both digital and print. It is the last phrase that has stirred debate
independently and proficiently. While everyone agrees that we shouldnt just hand
students hard texts and wish them well, the practice of scaffolded instruction is receiving
renewed attention. How much is too much? When is it not enough? A second dimension
of the phrase independently and proficiently concerns exactly what students should be
reading. It is expected that students will read and understand more complex texts than
they have been expected to in the past. But to what endand how do we know what
makes a text complex? (pp. 3-7)
I found this quote to be quite interesting, particularly in regards to scaffolded instruction.
I have always believed in and utilized the gradual release of responsibility model in my daily
instruction. This model provides scaffolded instruction as teachers go from assuming all
responsibility for content and task to gradually releasing the responsibility of the content and task
to the students. This is achieved by first providing a focus lesson in which the teacher models his
or her thinking and understanding of the content and task for students. Then, guided instruction is
delivered as the teacher facilitates or leads students through the content and task together. Next,
students are provided time to work collaboratively with peers to practice their understanding of
the content or task, have discussions and problem solve together. The last step of the model asks
students to demonstrate their understanding independently. My lesson plans for every content
area are written and designed using the gradual release of responsibility model. This allows me
to provide effective and meaningful scaffolded and differentiated instruction to all my students.
With text complexity and the texts being difficult to read, this reassures me that I am providing
my students with scaffolded instruction and am supporting them as they work towards reading
and comprehending complex texts independently and proficiently.
3

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


Criteria for Selecting Complex Texts
Developers of the CCSS have identified three inter-related factors for determining text
complexity: quantitative evaluation, qualitative evaluation and matching readers with texts and
tasks. The authors define each of these as follows:
Quantitative evaluation: readability measures and other scores of text complexity.
Qualitative evaluation: levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and
clarity, and knowledge demands.
Matching readers with texts and tasks: reader variables (such as motivation,
knowledge, and experiences) and task variables (such as purpose and the complexity
generated by the task assigned and the questions posed). (Fisher and Frey, 2013 pp.7)
It is important for educators to remember that text analysis must always consider all three
factors.
Quantitative Evaluation
It can be easy for educators to rely solely on quantitative measures when selecting texts
for their students. These measures alone, however, are not satisfactory for understanding why
one piece of text is qualitatively more difficult than another text with an equal quantitative score.
It would be insufficient to use only readability data, which consists of sentence length and use of
rare words, to measure text complexity. Fisher and Frey (2013) state, the art of making
meaningful qualitative evaluations is best left to the judgement of a knowledgeable educator who
is deeply familiar with the texts in question.
Qualitative Evaluation
Qualitative evaluation requires evaluating texts across four categories: levels of meaning
and purpose, structure, language convention and clarity, and knowledge demands. Levels of
meaning and purpose vary in text in many ways. Some texts present information in simplistic
ways, while others do so in more complex ways. This includes figurative language or
dense/complex topics and ideas. Structure refers to the genre of the selected text, its organization,
narration, the use of various text features as well as the use of various graphics. Language
convention and clarity such as font size, sentence grammar, etc. also affect the complexity of a
text. Lastly, knowledge demands of the reader heavily impact the level of complexity of a given
text. This can include how much background knowledge or cultural knowledge is required of the
reader to comprehend the text.
These categories are the same that many teachers refer to when planning lessons and
delivering instruction. Any given text will be more or less difficult within each of the four
categories and it is very unlikely that a text would have the same level of difficulty across all
four categories. When researching CCSS Anchor Standard 10 it is clear that the main purpose of
identifying text complexity is to assign texts to a specific Lexile level. In the article,
Understanding Text Complexity, Hiebert and Pearson (2014) state, such use of qualitative
analyses, fails to give rich information that teachers need to guide students through texts,
curriculum developers to craft lessons for teachers or test developers to create appropriate
assessments. Additional work is needed to create qualitative text-analysis systems that provide
the kind of information needed for curriculum, instruction and assessment functions.

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


Matching Readers with Texts and Tasks
While quantitative and qualitative factors are based on the characteristics of each text, the
third factor in determining text complexity is about appropriately matching the reader, the text
and the task. This is perhaps the most important factor, for both educators and students. With so
many texts available for teachers to select, they must take into consideration students
motivation, knowledge and experiences amongst other factors. Fisher and Frey (2013) agree that
in addition to meeting the criteria of text complexity, supporters of reader response theory
believe selected texts should:

provide students with examples of quality writing that mentor them as writers themselves
grant students access to excellent illustrations
allow students to see themselves-their religion, ethnicity, language and culture in the
selected texts
permit students to interact-through the act of reading-with people who different
experiences and beliefs
depict a variety of family structures
offer a balanced portrayal of gender identities and roles in terms of the depiction of the
characters and what the characters do
interrupt gender, racial or ability stereotypes (pp.11)

In order for teachers to successfully match readers with texts and tasks, they must know their
students. The criteria listed above can be helpful when selecting texts for both whole group
instruction and small group differentiated instruction.
Common Core State Standards Text Exemplars
As mentioned above, standard 10 of the common core state standards is devoted to
students increasing capacity with complex texts. This is addressed in Appendix A and Appendix
B of the CCSS document. Appendix A addresses the measurement of complex text and Appendix
B provides a list of texts which exemplify complexity for each grade band.
Since text complexity has not been directly addressed in either state standards or reading
programs over the past 25 years, considerable confusion exists about what text complexity means
(Hiebert, 2013). The exemplar texts listed in Appendix B add to this confusion. In some
educational settings, these exemplar texts have been adopted as the new reading curriculum.
Valencia and Wixson (2014) state, the exemplars were intended to provide examples of the types
of texts and nature of the writing that may fall within specific quantitative and qualitative
measures of text complexity. They were not intended to be a prescribed list of core texts.
Though exemplar texts are a new concept for many educators, they have been present for many
years in reading and writing assessment. Hiebert (2013) explains,
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, uses such a system to evaluate
students written responses to comprehension questions. First, model responses are
selected for advanced, proficient, basic and below-basic performance. Then, evaluators
use these model responses to evaluate students responses.

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


The CCSSs list of text exemplars has a similar purpose: to serve as useful guideposts in
helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classroom
(CCSS Initiative, Appendix B, 2010 p. 2). These exemplar texts simply serve as a guide for
selecting other complex texts.
The CCSS provides a list of many texts for each grade band and text type. For example,
in the grades 2-3 band, there are 13 literature stories and 12 informational text exemplars listed.
Standard 10 clearly expresses the importance of students having capacity with texts at the high
end of a grade spans text complexity band (CCSS, p.14). What is not clear however, is which
texts listed represent the high end. This leaves teachers wondering which exemplars listed are for
the end of grade two and which are for the end of grade three?
A question many educators have had since the implementation of the CCSS is what
criteria should be used to select exemplar texts? For teachers, creating a list of text exemplars is
just a first step. In order for these exemplars to be used effectively and meaningfully in
instruction, teachers much closely study each text and connect them to specific points of reading
development. In doing so, teachers should also refer to quantitative evaluation, qualitative
evaluation and matching reader to text and task as mentioned previously.
While the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B of the CCSS are there to serve as a guide
in selecting other complex texts, many educators are not aware of this. This is a perfect example
of another policy cascade affecting the way educators understand, interpret and implement the
CCSS standards. Prior to conducting this research, I too believed that these exemplars were to be
used as the reading curriculum for teaching the CCSS literature and informational reading
standards. My school has purchased these texts and requires me to use them in my literacy
instruction. This has been frustrating and challenging for two reasons. First, the texts purchased
are not texts I would have purchased for my students as I do not feel they will engage or inspire
my students. Secondly, the texts lack diversity and do not offer elements that my students can
relate or connect to. There are so many fantastic pieces of childrens literature available, it would
have been nice to have a voice in the selection process as I am with my students daily and know
their backgrounds, what motivates them and what texts will engage them. This serves as a
reminder that teachers must educate themselves and research the CCSS thoroughly.
The Common Core State Standards Staircase of Text Complexity
While the CCSS promotes a staircase of text complexity, there is much debate about
whether or not the increase in text difficulty levels needs to start in the primary grades. Many
agree that high school and middle school texts have in fact been steadily dumbed down over
the last 50 years-; however, the claim that K-3 texts have also been dumbed down during this
time is simply not true. In kindergarten for example, the current difficulty level of texts in
standard reading programs is comparable to those of first grade texts previously. Many argue that
the biggest challenge for beginning readers today is that the texts are too difficult for students to
read and comprehend. Hiebert (2012) explains,
In the texts of the 2010s, beginning readers must process large numbers of new words
typically 25 or more new words for every 100 of text (regardless of the programs
philosophy). The majority of words in todays beginning reading programs are included
6

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


among the 300 most-frequent words in written English. However, many of the other
words in the textaround 40%--appear a single time. Texts with many new words that
are rarely if ever repeated make it hard for beginning readers to develop automaticity
with core sound-letter patterns and critical words.
Even so, the CCSS believes that texts for K-3 students can and should be more complex.
The CCSS guidelines for text difficulty are organized by grade span bands, measured by Lexile
levels, and are considerably harder than previous grade level requirements (CCSS, Appendix A,
2010). For example, on the Lexile scale used by the CCSS for its staircase of text complexity,
grades 2-3 are expected to reach a Lexile level of 790L by the years end. This is roughly one
grade level higher than previous expectations. Statistics show that nationwide, American fourth
graders are failing to meet the current proficient reading expectation set by the National
Assessment of Educational Progress. This leaves many arguing that before we raise the first step
on the staircase of text complexity and ask our young learners to make larger gains faster, we
first analyze the staircase of complexity and determine what it is that will help our students be
academically successfully.
I found the research on the CCSSs staircase of text complexity to be very interesting.
While many agree that the levels of difficulty needed to be raised for middle and high school
students, there is much debate about whether the same needed to be done at the primary and
intermediate grades. In the research, many argued that elementary students were not meeting
previous grade level expectations and feel they will not meet the rigorous new expectations of
the CCSS. Researchers suggested that instead of increasing the expectations, policy makers
should first examine previous and current data to determine exactly what it is our students need
to be academically successfully.
During my 8 years with CCSD, I have seen several different reading, writing and math
programs/curriculums come and go. It has been the same for both interim and high stakes
standardized testing. We never using a program or assessment long enough to know if it is
meeting the needs of our students. Maybe before we push or students even harder, we should
take a step back, analyze the data and pinpoint exactly what it is our students will need to be
successful. Continuously changing standards, curriculia, and assessments does not solve the
problem, it only adds to it.
Text Complexity and English Language Learners
As a teacher who has only ever taught English language learners (ELLs), I fear that the
expectations of the CCSS leaves them at a disadvantage to be academically successful. Due to
English language development I know many of my own students struggle greatly with complex
texts, particularly those in the content areas full of academic language. Differences in
vocabulary, however, are only a small part of the problem. Fillmore and Fillmore (2011) explain,
linguists and language analysts who have studied the language of academic texts have identified
grammatical structure and devices for framing ideas, indicating relationships, and structuring
arguments, that create substantial differences between spoken and written language.
The language in complex texts is different from the English familiar to many students and
therefore creates a learning barrier of understanding.

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


In 2012, Stanford University launched the Understanding Language initiative. Its goal is
to increase educators awareness of the critical role language plays in literacy, learning, and
assessment in the content areas (Hakuta, Santos & Fang, 2013). The Common Core State
Standards for English language arts require the following of students in reading, writing,
speaking/listening, and language:

In reading, students must read and comprehend literature and informational texts of
increasing complexity to build knowledge.
In writing, students must use evidence to inform, argue, and analyze for varied
audiences/purposes, and present knowledge gained through research.
In speaking and listening, students must work collaboratively, understand multiple
perspectives and present ideas.
In language, students must use linguistic resources and conventions to achieve particular
functions, purposes, and rhetorical effects. (Bunch, Kibler, and Pimentel, 2012 as quoted
in Hakuta, Santos and Fang, 2013).

These expectations are challenging for all students, particularly English language learners.
With the CCSS have come more demands in terms of what students must be able to do with
language in content area learning. For example, the CCSS expect students to spend a significant
amount of time engaged in conversations and discussions with their peers about academic
content. This is one aspect that supports ELL students as it allows them time to acquire language
by participating in meaningful academic interactions and discourse with their teachers and peers.
A common theme of the standards is that students must participate in classroom activities and
discourses that reflect the practices of each content discipline, thereby becoming members of a
community of practice (Hakuta, Santos and Fang, 2013). In order for ELL students to be
successful in content-rich classrooms, teachers must provide them opportunities to learn content
area language to increase their comprehension of complex texts.
Conclusion
Policy cascades has always existed, but they seem to be at an all-time high with the
CCSS. The initial goal was to standardized education across all 50 states, but with the CCSS
being open to interpretation, not all educators have the same understanding of how to implement
these standards. More training opportunities need to be provided to teachers to allow them time
to evaluate and become familiar with the standards. In addition, districts should provide teachers
time to collaborate with one another in order to plan effective and meaningful instruction for
students.
Just as the article Teaching Under Policy Cascades: Common Core and Literacy Instruction, by
Aimee Papola-Ellis challenged me to conduct my own research and learn more about the standards, doing
so has challenged me to evaluate my literacy instruction even deeper. All the articles and studies I read
about text complexity gave me a concrete understanding of what text complexity is, what I criteria I can
use to select complex texts, and how I can improve academic achievement for all my students.
Over the years, I have learned how to navigate through policy cascades and do what is
best for my students. It is so important for teachers to do the research about CCSS and unpack
each standard so we know exactly what we need to be teaching our students. While teachers still
8

RESEARCH SYNTHESIS: TEXT COMPLEXITY


must listen to administration and district policies, we also have to trust ourselves as professionals
and do what it best for the students we have sitting in our classrooms. With each passing year,
educators develop a sense of who they are as a teacher and come to know
My biggest take away from the readings and research I have done, is that educators needs
to educate themselves on the policies and standards in place for education. It is too easy to get
caught up in policy cascades. Teachers must dig deeper and sharpen their own understandings of
the materials they are required to teach.
References
Fang, Z., Hakuta, K. and Santos, M. (2013). Challenges and opportunities for language learning
in the context of the CCSS and the NGSS. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.
56(6), 451-454.
Fisher, D and Frey, N. (2013). Rigorous reading: Five access points for comprehending complex
texts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Sage Publications Ltd.
Handsfield, .L., Karraker, D., MacPhee, D., and Wedwick, L. (2013). Leveling, text complexity
and matching students with texts in the common core era: Where is the child? Illinois
Reading Council Journal. 41 (1), 3-5.
Hiebert, E. (2013). The CCSS text exemplars: Understanding their aims and uses in text
selection. Reading Today.
Hiebert, E. (2013). Supporting students movement up the staircase of text complexity. The
Reading Teacher. 66, 459-468.
Hiebert, E. and Pearson, P. (2014). Understanding text complexity: Introduction to the special
issue. The Elementary School Journal. 115, 153-160.
Papola-Ellis, A. (2014). Teaching under policy cascades: Common core and literacy instruction. Journal
of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 10(1), 166-187. Retrieved from
http://jolle.coe.uga.edu.

Valencia, S. and Wixson, K. (2014). CCSS-ELA: Suggestions and cautions for addressing text
complexity. The Reading Teacher. 67, (6) 430-434.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School
Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in
history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors.