Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Text Complexity in the US Common Core State Standards: A Linguistic Critique

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Text Complexity in the US Common Core State Standards: A Linguistic Critique

Article excerpt

Introduction

A flurry of national reports (e.g. National Center for Education Statistics, 2014) suggest that academic achievement for K-12 students in the United States has declined or remained stagnant over the past decade. This lack of educational progress is believed to stem, at least in part, from three troubling trends that have been widely reported in research: (a) students' motivation to read and the amount of (academic) reading decline as they advance in schooling; (b) subject area content is delivered primarily via PowerPoint, lecture, oral discussion, hands-on tasks, and performance-based activities, with little use of written texts (and hence few opportunities for extended reading and writing); and (c) students are rarely explicitly taught how to independently read and write complex texts in subject area classrooms.

In response to this situation, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) recently released a document outlining a set of rigorous national standards for school children. The document, called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (www.corestandards.org), represents a sea change in standards-based educational reforms. It recommends that 'all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school' (NGA & CCSSO, 2010, p. 2), and that by the time they graduate high school, students 'must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers' (NGA & CCSSO, 2010, p. 2). These recommendations reflect the beliefs of the CCSS architects that (a) texts of varying complexities are central to literacy development and disciplinary learning; (b) the complexity of school texts has steadily declined over the past several decades; and (c) many students have trouble independently reading complex texts in academic subjects upon high school graduation.

Similar movements to raise educational standards and make language and literacy integral parts of subject area teaching can be found elsewhere around the world. The National Curriculum in England (Department for Education, 2014), for example, calls for teachers to 'develop pupils' reading and writing in all subjects to support their acquisition of knowledge' (Department for Education, 2014, p. 10); and students are expected to be able to read fluently and to understand extended prose. In Australia, recent policy initiatives and research efforts have also become increasingly concerned with language and literacy across the school curriculum; and as part of the national literacy goals, students are expected to develop facility in handling the distinctive language and literacy demands of school subjects (ACARA, 2012; Love, 2009; Unsworth, 2002).

One central concept in the CCSS document is text complexity. The concept has received much attention in recent discussions of the CCSS (e.g. Gamson, Lu & Eckert, 2013; Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013; Moore, Zancanella & Avila, 2014; Hiebert & Pearson, 2014). This essay contributes to this conversation. Informed by systemic functional linguistics (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004), a theory of meaning that interprets language as networks of interlocking options and views grammar as a creative resource for making meaning, this article offers a linguistic critique of text complexity as it was conceived by the writers of the CCSS document. It also identifies some linguistic sources of complexity that create potential comprehension challenges and describes a pedagogical routine for coping with these challenges. Understanding text complexity is key to its effective implementation in curriculum development and classroom practices. A linguistic perspective on text complexity is needed because (a) school knowledge is made prototypically of language and presented to students primarily through written texts; and (b) as the knowledge students have to learn becomes more specialised and complex over the school years, the language that constructs this knowledge also becomes progressively more dense, technical, and abstract (Halliday, 2007; Schleppegrell, 2004). …

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