Common Core Curriculum and Complex Texts

By Hill, Rebecca | Teacher Librarian, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Common Core Curriculum and Complex Texts


Hill, Rebecca, Teacher Librarian


From primary to secondary to higher education, reading and reading comprehension remain the lynchpins of a successful American education.

But they are also where most of our failures in education lie. Throughout the United States, we have leveled reading. We have computerized reading. We have delineated reading lists. We have even depredated reading to an assigned number of pages per grading period.

Experts will tell us that reading is the most critical skill that a student needs to be successful in college and the workplace. And yet, of incoming college freshmen, 51% read at a remedial level. Studies have found that American students start out as good readers, but by the time they are ready to go to college they no longer possess the skills for deeper reading. And while K-12 textbooks are now written at a simpler level, periodicals, journal articles, and other reading materials have become more complex. Even the newspaper is harder to read than the typical student textbook.

THE NCCC SETS STANDARDS

Now with the state-led efforts of the National Common Core Curriculum (NCCC/Standards movement for math and English/Language Arts, education has reenergized the importance of reading across the curriculum. Thirty-seven states, territories, and the District of Columbia have now adopted these standards.

Created to align with the 2009 College and Career Readiness standards, NCCC standards were developed by using best practices evidence from a variety of states. The goal of NCCC workgroups was to create a system of standards that focused on a consistent end result, unlike our current system of standards, which differ from state to state. With a crosscurriculum emphasis, these core curriculum standards staircase growing text complexity, an increased use of technology for sharing information and concepts, and a content- rich curriculum which assures smoother grade-to-grade progression. Initially, national experts formed workgroups that fleshed out the national standards. Now, state level workgroups are in the process of developing working documents for their state and school districts with the overall goal of implementation by 2014.

Today the societal given is that all students must go to college to be career ready for a global workplace. Therefore, inherent to the NCCC standards is the idea of college and career readiness. "The Common Core State standards for K-12 derive from these particular standards," said Sally Hampton, Senior Fellow at America's Choice and chair of the English and Language Arts portion of the College and Career Readiness Standards Workgroup (S. Hampton, personal communication, November 11, 2010). As a member of the ELA K-12 Common Core Standards committee, Hampton explained that the goal of the workgroup was the use of those standards as their designated "end point," that is the skill sets that K-12 kids need to meet in order to be college and career ready.

IT IS DEEPER READING

But what do students graduating from high school actually need to be prepared to make these steps? The answer to this question is our old friend: deeper reading. In addition to the 2005 ACT-test finding that only 51% of high school graduates were ready for college-level reading, the data also showed that the clearest indicator in reading between those students who are ready versus those who were not was their ability to comprehend complex texts. Strangely, they were more ready in the 10th grade than when they graduated (ACT Educational Services 2006).

Further, college textbooks have increasingly gotten more complex, and workplace reading tends to exceed a grade 12 complexity level. College professors increasingly assign more readings from periodicals than most high school teachers do. Finally, word difficulty in scientific journals and magazines has increased exponentially. On the flip side, K-12 textbooks have essentially trended downward in their complexity, while in the classroom students are asked to read less and less. Current trends in reading suggest that students cannot read challenging texts and, in fact, more students entering college require remedial reading assistance just to stay on top of college required reading (Common Core Organization, 2009). Students are not being taught to read beyond the third grade and as they get older, students-especially struggling students-get less and less access to texts and reading instruction (Annenberg Institute for School Reform 2010). The central concept of the NCCC Standards will be teaching increasing text complexity and reading across the curriculum, so that from math class to science class to literature, reading via complex texts will dominate the curriculum.

WHAT IS DEEPER READING?

But what is a "complex text"? How and who should teach from these texts? According to the NCCC standards definition, complex texts-in a nutshell-offer new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought. Six elements comprise a complex text, essentially what common core advocates call the "RSVP" definition: 1) Relationships-subtle, involved, and deeply embedded-can be found among ideas and character; 2) Rich text possesses highly sophisticated information; 3) Structured organization is elaborate and sometimes unconventional; 4) Style, tone, and use of language are often intricate; 5) Vocabulary is demanding and highly contextually dependent; 6) Purpose of the text is implicit though sometimes ambiguous (ACT Educational Services, 2006). Examples of these types of text are embedded within the standards and include such titles as Cynthia Rylant's Poppleton in Winter, John Adams' "Letter on Thomas Jefferson," and Euclid's Elements (C. C. Organization, 2009). Plus, text exemplars are not limited to books; they include journal articles and digital materials, as well as other examples of challenging reading.

But figuring out text complexity turned out to be, in fact, quite complex. For Hampton, it was apparent that in American schools the emphasis on literary text dominated, but that kids were not getting the exposure to those informational texts or help with comprehending them. "So we had two problems," said Hampton. "[In the workgroup] we didn't want to just create a reading list, but we wanted to increase the amount of informational texts that students read. So the question became how do you go about determining the level of reading proficiency generally and how do you make sure that informational and complex texts exposed kids to complex ideas." After using a variety of comprehension tools, the workgroup assembled teams of teachers throughout the U.S. and then asked them what sorts of books they were successfully teaching in their classrooms. "This is how we came up with complex text exemplars that were illustrative of what level and complexity was needed," Hampton said. Though it is not a reading list, Hampton stressed, "We know that these work because they are already being used in the classroom. They are all examples of what works."

Kelly Gallagher, whose book Deeper Reading chronicles how teachers can teach challenging and difficult texts, finds the notions of challenging and complex texts similar. "I think that a lot of students today have the 'I read it and I'm done' mentality," Gallagher said. "But you cannot read The Declaration of Independence, Hamlet, or The Federalist Papers one time and understand it. There are passages and key moments in these texts where I think kids should get that 2nd, 3rd or 4th draft reading and this is what I think the National Common Core is creating." (K. Gallagher, personal communication, November 23, 2010.)

TEACHING READING USING COHPLEX TEXTS

In his books, Gallagher often talks about how reading is assigned today rather than actually taught, the crux of the National Common Core Standards. So if reading is to be elemental across the curriculum, it begs the question: Who will be teaching reading strategies in classes like science, math, and history? Sally Hampton related a recent encounter with a literature teacher who had spent six weeks teaching Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. When Hampton asked why they spent six weeks, and if, in fact, the students had understood the book, the teacher replied that, yes they had understood it, but if she had had to give them another Hawthorne book, they could not automatically understand the text. When Hampton asked her why she didn't just teach them to read the book, the literature teacher replied, "I am a literature teacher. I don't know how to teach reading."

This encounter illustrates how truly multifaceted the teaching of reading can he. We assume, says Hampton, that once a student can comprehend one text, he or she can comprehend anything. But in reality, this is not the case. Each time a student tackles a text that increases in complexity, the need for instruction escalates. Most students need help getting into the text, working through it, and then focusing on the text's actual meaning, Hampton says. "In schools today I don't think that we recognize that the constant is the comprehension, but the variable is the text. What we really want students to do is to be able to understand what the book is written about and then when comprehension breaks down, we need to provide them with strategies to repair that understanding."

Marilyn Jager Adams, research professor in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University, believes that in order to be a good reader, a student must read a lot to acquire the vocabulary and text experience necessary to read more and more complex texts. But she has found that the diverse languages of various content areas are something most teachers do not fully understand. The key, she says, is understanding that all disciplines across the curriculum require varied and sometimes subtle approaches, because the syntax, language, vocabulary, and structure contained therein are so different. "Teaching reading across the curriculum is probably the riskiest things of all because language in different kinds of genres are very different from oral language," Adams said. "It depends on how words are used, verbal stress, or the syntax of the words. The reader has to be able to put it into context. So you have to understand the genre structures to unpack it."

While a history book includes long and complex sentences that situate facts throughout, in a science text, sentence structures are multi-layered with logical hedges. In math, the content doesn't really matter, just the syntax, Adams explains. These differences in genres, though subtle, can be key in teaching a student to understand different types of text.

WHEN TO TEACH READING

But in reality, the problem in classrooms today is not so much how to teach reading, but exactly when to teach it in an already hectic and full schedule. Because current standards dictate so much and time is so limited, teachers must pack in as much as possible. As a result, Adams explained in a recent American Educator article, teachers have two choices: "Either the materials must be sufficiently accessible in language and concept for the students to read and understand on their own, or the students must be given help as they read" (Adams 2010-2011). The opportunities for one-to-one reading assistance are limited by the confines of classroom pressures, she acknowledges, and as a result have become, in reality, assignments restricted to those materials within a student's independent reach.

Under the NCCC Standards, Adams says, instructing teachers on reading across content areas will be the real challenge of American education. "We have simply neglected the classroom, and are presumptuous of the teachers, giving them too much to do with too little resources. They are poorly supported and then we call them out for not succeeding." (M. Jaeger Adams, personal communication, November 24, 2010.) To follow the NCCC mandate, we will need to make far better use of technology and, Adams acknowledges, we will need to admit that we cannot teach students everything. "As a result, we are going to have to build teaching units with greater depth," Adams said.

READING AND TEXTBOOKS

If we consider that in order to get students more college and career ready, they have to become more adept with complex texts, and if we already know that the classroom textbook has been "dumbed down," do current textbooks meet the requirements of complex texts under the NCCC Standards? Most educators will argue that textbooks in today's classrooms are the proverbial third wheel. Sure, they are important for an overview of the subject matter and can supplement a unit lesson. But with the plethora of resources available, textbooks alone are insufficient for a meaningful learning experience. Though the NCCC Standards do not specifically address whether or not textbooks meet the requirements for a complex informational text, no textbook made their list of exemplar texts. In fact, the list is comprised of rich and varied examples of journal articles, poems, historical primary source documents, nonfiction books, and novels. So we have to ask ourselves: Do textbooks really provide students with the elements of deeper reading that they need? Or can curriculum maps, developed by teams of teachers for a content rich curriculum, be built in such a way that they will eliminate the need for the overview that textbooks provide?

In Indiana, teams of teachers are working on curriculum maps that will help other teachers teach their classes to be less dependent upon those textbooks. Literacy leader and teacher at Zionsville West Middle School in Zionsville, Indiana, Jane Green worked on the Indiana ELA workgroup developing curriculum maps with specific learning targets based on the NCCC Standards and Indiana ELA standards. As a teacher, Green believes that the textbook is merely a tool. "I use textbooks a little bit, but come up with my own curriculum," she said. "But the curriculum mapping tools will help those teachers who are textbook bound. It will give them a starting point rather than using a textbook" (J. Green, personal communication, November 10, 2010).

Kelly Gallagher believes we are in the dawn of a new textbook, one that is soon to become digital-an iPad approach that provides links and video. "Ten years from now, a textbook will not be what we consider a textbook to be. A textbook will be more of a resource that will allow you to read a primary source document or click on a link to watch a video," Gallagher said. "It will be a whole different multimedia approach and it will be exciting to see it evolve. But I think, for nonfiction titles, a textbook is a springboard to bring in other enriching materials."

READING AND TECHNOLOGY

In fact, many schools like Empire High School in Empire, Arizona, have built their curriculum around digital materials. But for most schools, the problem is time and the necessary expertise to identify resources that will enhance their curriculum. "I do think the common core standards will make it easier to move away from the textbook.

But there is an overwhelming frustration for a lot of teachers who know they can create an entire curriculum," said Green. "It is a question of time and also identifying the right resources. It is difficult because there is so much out there. So much of it is junk. It takes time to determine what a valid useful tool is and what is junk. " If that is the case, exactly who has the expertise and time to identify complex resources and informational texts? '

In most schools, the teacher-librarian is the hub that ties all grade levels to the school wheel, but in the development of the NCCC Standards, only one librarian participated on the national ELA work team. While librarians may be alarmed by this unfortunate fact, it is not unusual. Indeed it may reflect, as Marcia Mardis, assistant professor at Florida State University's School of Library and Information Studies says, a deeply systemic problem something that starts with our educational system for teachers.

"If you look at the education standards, the role of the teacher-librarian is not explicitly honored," Mardis said. "In fact, it is possible to go through a college of education and not ever have anyone talk about the role of the teacher-librarian." As a result, teachers are not accustomed to thinking of the teacher-librarian as a collaborative partner in the learning process. Nor are librarians thought to be instrumental partners in the literacy process. "We were very heartened about the role of multimedia and technology [in the standards], but they were shortened in key areas such as valuing the creation and communication of information," Mardis said. When we take a look at the research on why most teachers quit the teaching profession, Mardis says, one of the top three reasons is because they are so overwhelmed and frustrated in choosing quality teaching materials. "The whole notion of resources being at the center of quality teaching is missing from teaching standards and even from new initiatives. It is a deeply systemic problem" (M. Mardis, personal communication, November 19, 2010.)

Clearly teacher-librarians represent a vital part of the world of education. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has issued a very strong position statement on the teacher-librarian's role in reading today, saying that "teacher-librarians model and collaboratively teach reading comprehension strategies: assess and use background knowledge, pose and answer questions that are appropriate to the task, make predications and inferences, determine main ideas, and monitor reading comprehension as well as the learning process" (Librarians n.d.). In fulfilling these tenets, AASL advocates that teacher-librarians-not only as resource providers but as literacy team members-have a key role in supporting print and online reading comprehension strategies while their libraries serve as hubs of literacy learning in the school. But despite these strong advocations, what sort of value does a teacherlibrarian bring to the literacy table?

The activites in a classroom encompasses a wide range of activities and influences that contribute to student learning. The school library, Mardis says, is just one of those componena that add to literacy learning. In a value-added model, Mardis says, this, clearly, will have an effect on how the common core will be interpreted and depends on the role the teacher-librarian plays in identifying and assessing a student reader. Marilyn Jager Adams believes librarians are uniquely situated in evaluating complex texts because they "appreciate the beauties and complexity of text." According to Adams, "A good librarian is the Sherlock Holmes of education. Their ability to do intelligent searches, well, librarians can do it better than anyone."

But should a teacher-librarian be an active member on a school literacy team? Absolutely, says Kelly Gallagher, a librarian can bring their relationship with the reader to the literacy table as well as an awareness of what resource materials are available.

Clearly the reader relationship cannot be underestimated. With that relationship comes many aspects that can only be fostered through the one-to-one relationship that so many teacher-librarians have with their students. In their personal contact with readers, librarians often develop a knowledge base, some of which is intuitive and some that is informed by what their students are reading. It is the intuitive piece, says Marcia Mardis, that comes from teacher-librarians being more in touch with student readers when they don't have to read for content. "Librarians should be a part of the literacy team," Mardis asserts. "What happens when they are not there is that literacy gets boiled down to a checklist of skills that can be scientifically measured. There is so much more to literacy than that. There is so much more serendipity involved."

In some respects, Mardis argues, adding a teacher-librarian to the literacy team awakens that sleeping giant question of whether or not a librarian is, in fact, a librarian or a teacher. "Doug Johnson has this great phrase: 'What gets measured is what gets done: At the current way of thinking at the federal level, it seems that, until there is a test and some stake attached to it that is reliant on the things that teacher-librarians do, then we are always going to be seen as 'extra," Mardis said. "This gets back to the notion of value and how we and the reds are defining value. We need to figure out where we fit into this notion of value. To my mind, if we know that instructional materials, the ability to find, use and be innovative with them are a key part of teacher success then we are absolutely a key part of teacher success." Teacher-librarians can, in fact, play that key role in converging technology and literacy. As teachers come out of education school with very little technology, tech instructional material, or organizational skills, the true interdisciplinary connectiveness between librarians and teachers lies in these notions, Mardis says, thus enhancing the teacher-librarian's role in literacy and in ongoing compliance with common core standards.

Whether librarians are members of the literacy team or literacy teachers remains to be seen. Waiting for the "powers that be" to define what we contribute and what we can add to a school's reading success seems foolish. Currently, AASL is in the process of evaluating the NCCC Standards and where teacher-librarians fit within them. It is hoped guidelines will provide the support that teacher-librarians need to find their place in the literacy school world and national common core. But until then, teacher-librarians can advocate for their place on school and districtwide literacy teams. They can begin by building their archives beyond those suggested as text exemplars in the national core using their own ideas and knowledge of the materials necesssary to assure compliance. They can expand their own definitions of materials to include digital materials, periodicals, and journals while also finding ways to catalog and integrate them into the current curriculum maps. They can further solidify those collaborations, making themselves essential and functional members of the teaching staff. Finally, they can continue to build those relationships with readers, looking for added, perhaps subtle, dimensions of their readers comprehension abilities, and what they need to push them toward lifelong reading success.

BOOKS MENTIONED

Gallagher, K. Deeper reading. Stenhouse Publishers, 2004.

Rylant, Cynthia. Poppleton in winter. Cartwheel Books, 2008.

REFERENCES

ACT Educational Services, Inc. (2006). "Explaining what college readiness scores mean." ACT Educational Services. Retrieved on November 12, 2010 from http:// www.act.org/research/policymakers[reports/reading.html.

Adams, M. J. (2010). "Advancing our students' language and literacy: The challenge of complex texts." American Educator, 2010-2011: 1-10.

American Association of School Librarians. (2010). "Position statement on the school librarian's role in reading." Retrieved on November 27, 2010 from http://www.ala. org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/aaslissues/positionstatements/roleinreading.cfm.

Common Core Organization. (2010). "Common core state standards initiative." Retrieved on November 25, 2010 from http://www.corestandards.org/ assets/ Appendix_B.pdf.

Common Core State Standards Organization. (2009). "Common core state standards initiative." Retrieved on November 24, 2010 from http://www.corestandards.org/ assets/Appendix_B.pdf.

Annenberg Institute for School Reform. [2010). "Leading indicator spotlight." Retrieved on November 5, 2010 from http:// www.annenberginstitute.org/pdf/LeadingIndicator_Reading.pdf.

Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes about education, literacy, and reading issues. She has been published for several journals and in the field, VOYA-Voice of Youth Advocates. She may be contacted at bh8811 @gmail.com.

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