Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Examining Text Complexity in the Early Glades: Choosing Texts for Early-Grade Students Is Critical If Educators Hope to Reach the Common Core Goal of Improving Reading Skills

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Examining Text Complexity in the Early Glades: Choosing Texts for Early-Grade Students Is Critical If Educators Hope to Reach the Common Core Goal of Improving Reading Skills

Article excerpt

The text-complexity standard in the Common Core was created with the goal of all students being college- and career-ready at the end of 12th grade. The Common Core authors argued that college and workplace texts are significantly more complex than those in high school, that higher-performing college students are differentiated from lower-performing peers in their ability to answer questions associated with complex text, and that the text-complexity gap between high school and college/workplace must be closed. To close the gap, all students throughout schooling should read more complex texts than they currently do.

Debate about the text-complexity standard is heated (Hiebert, 2012; Shanahan, 2011; Gamson, Lu, & Eckert, 2013). Some of the fuss is about a text-complexity staircase presented in the standards--a staircase that provides "grade-by-grade specifications (text-level bands) for increasing text complexity in successive years of schooling" (NGA Center for Best Practices & CCSSO, 2010, Appendix A, p. 4). Raising the text-complexity bar for beginning readers is especially controversial because the Core's 2nd/3rd-grade step ends at 820 Lexiles (L)--about one grade level higher than previous recommendations (Williamson, Fitzgerald, & Stenner, 2014). Historically, while many students have achieved a reading level at or above 820L by the end of 3rd grade, struggling readers have attained, on average, only about 400L by the end of3rd grade (Williamson et al., 2014). For many children, making up the nearly 400L difference from kindergarten through 3rd grade may require Herculean effort (Williamson et al., 2014).

Still more fuss is about how early-grades teachers can evaluate texts to know which ones are more or less complex for their students (Hiebert, 2013). The Common Core provides four qualitative indicators:

* Levels of meaning or purpose;

* Structure;

* Language conventionality and clarity; and

* Knowledge demands (NGA & CCSSO, 2010).

Yet educators question the extent to which the four indicators are applicable to early-grades texts (Hiebert, 2013). While even the youngest of students are expected to read more complex texts than in the past, the standards are nearly silent on text-complexity factors for early-grades texts.

Still, the text-complexity standard is a standard, and early-grades teachers in states that adhere to the Common Core are bound by policy to shepherd all students to reach the standards' goals. As educators attempt to support young children to read increasingly complex texts, they need a firm understanding of what makes beginning-reading texts more or less complex.

What's a teacher to do?

We recently completed a text-complexity study (Fitzgerald et al., 2015) that explores what makes early-grades texts complex. We examined 350 digitized books selected to represent a wide range of kindergarten through 2ndgrade texts. Text-complexity levels for the books were determined using a scale created by combining teachers' judgment of text complexity and student reading. We identified 22 text characteristics that could be possible contributors to text complexity and created many computerized operations to measure the text characteristics in different ways. We then analyzed the digital texts using the computerized text-characteristic operations to determine which characteristics mattered most in relation to the assigned text-complexity levels. We learned a lot about early-grades text complexity--a lot that can help teachers.

Early-grades texts are special

Before teachers even look at the complexity in texts, they need the knowledge and awareness that early-grades texts differ from upper-grades texts in that they are designed specifically to facilitate young students' progress. Think about what beginning readers are mainly working on: cracking the code. Making meaning with texts is always the focus, but young children especially need to develop the ability to hear sounds in words, develop sight words, and acquire word recognition strategies (Fitzgerald & Shanahan, 2000). …

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