"Text Complexity" in the History Classroom: Teaching to and beyond the Common Core

By Reisman, Avishag; Wineburg, Sam | Social Studies Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Text Complexity" in the History Classroom: Teaching to and beyond the Common Core


Reisman, Avishag, Wineburg, Sam, Social Studies Review


Reading Standard 10 of the recently released Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History! Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects focuses on "text complexity," bringing new attention to the sophistication and variety of the texts students encounter in school. Who can argue with that? A steady stream of studies on adolescent reading comprehension has called for secondary reading to move beyond the meager diet of narrative fiction and textbook prose (cf. Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010; National Institute for Literacy, 2007). In fact, a 2006 American College Testing (ACT) study revealed that the biggest predictor of college enrollment and success was not the type of question students answered but the type of text students read. Text complexity, rather than students' ability to answer questions about an author's main idea or purpose, seems to be the best predictor of college readiness (ACT, 2006). The bottom line is that students who can face the challenge of complex texts are more likely get into college and succeed.

This new emphasis on text complexity has sent English Language Arts (ELA) teachers across the country scrambling to find "informational texts." Social studies teachers, on the other hand, are blessed with easy access to complex primary sources - the Library of Congress's American Memory alone has digitized hundreds of thousands of documents. But access does not guarantee success. The documentary record may provide a treasury of letters, diaries, secret communiqués, official promulgations, public speeches and the like, but merely presenting students with complex texts does not work magic. On the contrary, far from providing a silver bullet that will eradicate the nation's literacy crisis, the mere selection of complex texts represents only the first step in effective document-based instruction. If struggling readers are to benefit from complex texts we need to take three additional steps. We must: a) pose a central question; b) modify the document; and c) offer multiple opportunities for practice.

We ground our suggestions in a key understanding about history instruction sometimes skipped by literacy coaches: in order for students to engage with texts in sophisticated ways, they must see diese texts as evidence. That is, students who are asked to simply pull historical facts from a primary source are no better prepared for the literacy demands of college than those who cull facts from a textbook. It is in learning to interrogate the reliability and truth claims of a particular source that students begin to engage in the sorts of activities that lie at the heart of historical thinking (Reisman & Wineburg, 2008; Wineburg 2001; Wineburg, Martin, & MonteSano, 2011).

Our intervention work in San Francisco schools provides the empirical basis for our suggestions (Reisman, 2012a; 2012b). We compared 11th grade students who were taught with a documentbased U.S. history curriculum to students in traditional classrooms. Students who received document-based instruction outperformed their counterparts on measures of reading comprehension, historical thinking, and general reasoning. At the core of the intervention lay the 'Document-Based Lesson,' a new lesson structure that presented students with a predictable sequence of activities that over time built up the ability to cope with complex primary sources (Reisman, 2012b). Here we discuss how we prepared the documents for the 'Document-Based Lesson,' and we make the case for such instruction using the Common Core's framework for "Text Complexity."

Text Complexity: A Dilemma

At first glance, the concept of text complexity seems straightforward enough: complex texts presumably have longer, more sophisticated sentences and challenging vocabulary. By this definition, President Polk's 1846 message to Congress, a 3, 000- word speech requesting a declaration of war against Mexico, certainly qualifies as a complex text. …

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