A Narrow View of Complex Text

A foundation of the Common Core Standards (CCSS) is having students read complex text. No one will doubt how critical this is to being college ready. But is the Common Core framework providing a narrow view of complex text?

The complexity of a reading sample is determined through qualitative and quantitative formulas, in addition to the student’s task. However, debate is growing on how to satisfy the CCSS focus on “complex” text, and at the same time ensure students can read and understand the material. As a result, teachers are struggling to meet these standards while also meeting the needs of students at diverse levels.

I’ve had many students fluently read advanced text, but only be able to demonstrate a limited conceptual understanding of what they have read. Conversely, I’ve led classes with text that would not be considered “complex,” that generated thoughtful conversations, debate, reflective questions, and ultimately a deep understanding of the topic. Although the Common Core framework provides many benefits, it’s also directing educators to push students to read big words rather than generate big ideas.

A recent conversation with an education veteran got me thinking about this topic. I shared with her that a One World Reflection (a student-authored essay that is posted on One World Education’s website with aligned curriculum) was receiving positive feedback from economics teachers. She replied that high school students should be reading complex text on the topic, like that written by Paul Krugman, an esteemed economist and New York Times writer.

I agreed with her, but insisted that there are smarter “entry points” to the complicated topic of economics for engaging the learner than an expert’s Sunday editorial. One proven model that provides engaging entry points for teachers to guide learners toward complex text is One World Education. OWEd offers students the opportunity to learn about important topics from writing authored by their peers – enabling the reader to more easily relate to the writer and the content.

Many high school students can clearly read the words in a Paul Krugman article, and there is no argument that his articles qualify as complex text. We can also agree that reading high school student-authored text on the economy will certainly not compare to the analysis found in a Krugman article. However, simply being able to read sophisticated terms does not imply an understanding of the main ideas.

Past surveys of students participating in OWEd’s programs reveal that a higher percentage report being more engaged reading student-authored text – which is both rigorous and relevant – than from text authored by an expert. One educator referred to the One World Student Library of essays as the “perfect gateway” to maximize engagement, so students can then be led to more complex texts.

If students cannot understand the text they are assigned, not only is there a higher chance the student will not develop an interest in the topic, but the possibilities for disengagement increase, followed by the behaviors that accompany it. Understandably, teachers are nervous about meeting the standards for “complex text,” while satisfying their call as educators to drive complex thought and critical thinking. This forces teachers to make choices.

Although sound practice in differentiation aims at balancing both needs, teachers often have to choose between the standards they want to focus on and drive home and those that fall secondary. At the end of the day, if I had to demonstrate teaching mastery of some standards over others, I would pursue the standards of comprehension over reading levels. This position may not earn me points from Common Core hardliners, but it will build our readers into thinkers – and thinkers are better equipped to understand more complex text.

Yes, students need to practice reading complex texts because they will independently engage in this practice at the college level. However, teachers need relevant and stimulating entry points with clear pathways toward more complex text. By ensuring our students can master a complex understanding of a topic by utilizing less complex text at the outset, we ensure a learning experience that is anything but narrow, and increase the probability that mastery of more complex text won’t be far behind.

Comments

Excellent address of this issue and I could not agree more! Students may read a sophisticated text when forced, but without finding something in it which they can relate to their own lives, are unlikely to want to pursue further. Reading about such a topic from a peer's experience seems a better way to engage them and create the desire to delve into more sophisticated sources.

Great opinion piece weighing into the fog of rigor. Common Core has potential but all things tied to testing seem to boil down eventually into least engaging/relevant material. Eric makes a good case that calling something complex may be a veneer (complex) whereas simple texts can be complex when grappling with big ideas. Great insight and I totally agree.

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