Legislative and Social Issues Committee Update
Meeting the Text Complexity Standard: Room for Balance?
by Nancy L. Stevens, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
There is an important paradox inherent in the CCSS: The Common Core established a one-size fits all common set of college and career readiness learning goals for all students – no matter who they are, where they are, or what their circumstances may be. But, despite these common aspirations, we recognize that there will be great differences among children and in what it will take to get them to achieve these goals. (http://www.reading.org/general/AboutIRA/white-papers/ela-common-core-standards.aspx)
This quote, taken from the International Literacy Association Common Core Committee (2012) raises an important issue. Do we use rigorous, challenging reading materials that are often above (or below) the reading level of many students in a classroom in order to meet the end-of-year standards in reading or do we make an allowance for the varying reading levels in our classrooms so that the materials students are reading are appropriate for their various developmental levels? Politicians and members of think tanks such as the conservative Fordham Institute, and many other policy and political groups, both liberal and conservative, have debated this topic in schools and school districts, in webinars, on educational blogs. The implementation of the Common Core Standards (www.standards.org) has had an impact on the publishers of reading curricula and reading programs as they grapple with this issue.
It should be noted that the Common Core Standards do not require increased end-of-year text levels in kindergarten and grade one since students are working on foundational skills, learning effective decoding and word recognition. Complex texts at these grade levels can be introduced and shared through read alouds and think alouds that benefit students’ language development and emerging comprehension skills (http://www.reading.org/general/AboutIRA/white-papers/ela-common-core-standards.aspx). However, as students move into the intermediate grades and then middle school, how do we address the paradox described above?
When considering the text complexity question, we must consider the balance between the use of challenging materials to meet the CCSS requirement of preparing students who are college and career ready and considering the developmental levels and capabilities of the students as they progress through school. For example, leveled literacy and reading workshops are popular in elementary schools. Some have reasoned that students’ appropriate reading levels in leveled literacy programs are based on limited quantitative measures and underestimate the importance of a student’s background knowledge in comprehending a specific text, thus, limiting the options and variety of texts for students who only have access to books based on such limited quantitative measures (http://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/common-core-watch/2013/common-core-v-the-false-promise-of-leveled-literacy-programs.html). An additional issue that was raised in the above-referenced blog was the assertion that teachers are so focused on teaching skills and strategies in an isolated manner that they neglect providing proper scaffolding and instruction that would allow students access to frustration-level texts. It is well documented that reading workshops engage students in reading self-selected, high-interest texts at students’ appropriate reading levels. Through the conferencing process, specific reading behaviors are noted and become teaching points for future conferring sessions. Individual students are motivated to read the books they select because they have choice and are reading books that are at their appropriate developmental level. Is the Common Core requirement to read challenging texts by the end of the year making workshop classes harder to find? The workshop approach is based on teaching students to select books at their appropriate level – independent level and/or a combination of independent and instructional-level texts, depending on the organization of the workshop. Students in workshop classrooms select books of interest from a range of books at their reading levels, and they are taught how to find such books as part of the workshop structure. In my experience working as a middle school literacy coach, providing students with the opportunity to read, learn, and apply strategies to texts that they enjoy and have self-selected is beneficial for all students. This is particularly true for students who struggle with reading or for students who are reading well above grade level. A balanced approach to reading grade-level texts, which may be at the frustration level, along with texts students can read and understand with scaffolding and independently, may provide for the greatest improvement throughout the year.
Comments supporting both sides of the debate are common -- the sole use of frustration-level text or a combination of frustration-level text and easier text (independent/instructional); most agree, however, that at the end of the school year, the Common Core State Standards are clear in the expectation that students will be reading rigorous text at grade level. The question that remains is how to get students to the end-of year standard (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/10/teaching_with_challenging_text.html). While much of the discussion surrounds leveled reading at the elementary level, the discussion should not stop there.
Motivation to read, particularly with middle school students who struggle with reading, is one factor that needs serious consideration in the development of literacy curricula because this is a time when achievement levels tend to drop off and motivation decreases. As a teacher of what used to be called “remedial reading” at the middle and high school levels prior to working with pre-service and graduate students at the university level, I am concerned about the interpretation that only grade-level text be used throughout the year in order to meet the end-of-year standards at the end of the year. While working with readers at the high school level several years ago, I was shocked when some of them expressed the fact that they had never read through an entire book. As the year progressed, many of them became readers in no small part because they were reading books that were high interest and accessible to them. Their need included working with grade-level texts, but their interest in reading and engagement with books increased because they were able to read books that they could understand without becoming highly frustrated. Because this course was designed for readers who needed extra support, part of this interest in reading appeared to be due to the fact that everyone was reading below level so they were not embarrassed to be reading middle-level books in high school, and they often engaged discussions and book recommendations to others in the class. If our interest is in getting students to be readers, they need opportunities to read all types of books and a variety of levels.
The International Literacy Association Common Core State Standard Committee published Literacy Implementation Guidance for the ELS Common Core State Standards in 2012 (http://www.reading.org/general/AboutIRA/white-papers/ela-common-core-standards.aspx). The issue of challenging texts is addressed in the resulting white paper, which points out that the CCSS require students to read more difficult texts than they have been required to do previous to the implementation of the standards. The contention is that the new, rigorous and challenging requirements will help students reach “more advanced literacy achievement levels” (p. 1).” Writing about the requirement to read challenging texts, they also highlight the instructional complexities inherent in meeting this outcome as one that will take careful consideration and planning to successfully accomplish. “Merely adding more challenging texts to the curriculum will not be a sufficient or effective response to this requirement” (p. 1). The authors make an important statement about the levels of text that students need to read – the requirement refers to reading levels at the end of the year. “However, this does not mean that all assigned reading should be at these levels. In order to help students to attain the necessary end-of-year levels, teachers need to establish an ambitious itinerary of rich and varied narrative and informational texts, including some texts that are easier than the Standards specify” (http://www.reading.org/general/AboutIRA/white-papers/ela-common-core-standards.aspx). This point is important for all students, and is essential for students who are reading below grade level.
Motivation to read, and the opportunity to read books at both the independent and instructional reading levels are important to the development of self-efficacy and confidence, fluency, and comprehension. Williamson, Fitzgerald, and Stenner (http://edr.sagepub.com/content/42/2/59) discuss the shift to more challenging texts in relation to adolescent readers. They highlight several studies that have documented this period as a time when students are less invested in school and are subject to declining motivation. These authors stress the fact that these dynamics are particularly true when schools fail to meet the needs of adolescents. At this critical juncture, it is imperative that students who have been successful in elementary school continue on this path, and that students who are struggling are supported to prevent school failure. While characteristically developing and advanced adolescents may benefit from the challenge required of the Common Core Standards, the consequences for struggling adolescents may be high in terms of disengagement and increased potential for dropping out of school altogether. Since adolescents’ difficulties can vary widely, their problems may include word recognition, vocabulary, comprehension, knowledge of text structure or lack of strategic reading behaviors. Whatever the weaknesses, these students need to have instruction and scaffolding that is targeted to their individual needs and the opportunity to apply what they have learned to texts that are accessible to them.
Making room for reading workshop classes at the middle school level might help meet the unique needs of the many middle school readers throughout the country who currently struggle with reading. The National Center for Education Statistics determined that only 34% and 36% of U.S. eighth-grade students read at or above the proficient level in 2011 and 2013, respectively (http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/what-knowledge). As is illustrated by these statistics, there is a need to help the majority of the students who are reading below the proficient level, and more research may help identify the best way to accomplish this goal.
Students at the elementary and middle levels can and should have the opportunity to work with challenging texts, but some students will need support in reading these challenging (frustration-level texts); they will need to have sufficient scaffolding, including read alouds and think alouds, to learn how to engage with these types of texts. Whether in a disciplinary class or a reading class, all students will need the opportunity to apply what they are learning to texts that are accessible to them.
The widespread use of Readers’ Workshop has, as one of its major components, independent reading of instructional-level texts, and chosen by the students. Particularly at the middle school level, where struggling readers often display a marked decrease in motivation to read (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practice_guides/wwc_rc_pg_rec05.pdf), workshops can help rebuild confidence and motivation to read. Does the Common Core Standards’ focus on reading challenging grade level text put workshop classrooms in danger of extinction? Readers need experiences with a wide variety of genres, at a variety levels, as indicated by the International Literacy Association in a 2012 white paper.
The International Literacy Association Common Core Standards Committee (http://www.reading.org/general/AboutIRA/white-papers/ela-common-core-standards.aspx points out that in order to help students arrive at the end-of-year levels required by the Standards, “teachers need to establish an ambitious itinerary of rich and varied narrative and informational texts, including some texts that are easier than the Standards specify” [emphasis added]. As we move forward with the continued implementation of the Common Core Standards and contemplate how to address text complexity, there are continuing questions and debate surrounding the issues of challenging texts, rigor, and text complexity.
Points to Ponder:
- What research is available to support the position that more-challenging texts be taught and read throughout the year vs. a combination of challenging (frustration level) and independent and instructional text in meeting the year-end grade level standards?
- Is it feasible to devise a way to continue or begin a Readers’ Workshop with the essential elements of independent, self-selected reading at the student’s independent level, conferring with individual students based on identified teaching points to help individuals progress in their ability to comprehend increasingly difficult texts?
- Can a schedule accommodate both a workshop where students read and work with developmentally appropriate texts and a more traditional approach where some of the students’ instructional time is devoted to instruction in reading and understanding challenging texts in order to meet the end-of-year reading requirements of the CCSS?
- How effectively do state level continuing education/professional development policies support teachers’ needs relative to instruction with complex text? How can we best prepare pre-service teachers to handle the text complexity required by the Common Core State Standards while also addressing the wide variety of reading levels and best instructional practices in meeting the end-of-year grade level standards? What roles do state credentialing policies play in this regard?
During the 2015 ALER Annual Conference, the Legislative and Social Issues Committee will host the symposium, Dream keepers and Gatekeepers: Examining Issues of Access, Diversity and Literacy in Teacher Education. This program will provide ALER members with a comprehensive examination of literacy instruction as it impacts teacher preparation and student learning. Please look for an announcement specifying symposium time, date and room assignment as soon as that becomes available.