Looking at Complex Texts More Complexly (or What’s Wrong with this Picture?)

Clifford Loves Me -SunAlsoRises

By now many of us have experienced or heard about the effects of using Lexile levels as the sole arbiter of text complexity. In her wonderful post “Guess My Lexile,” for instance, Donalyn Miller looks at the absurdity of putting book with widely different reader appeal and age appropriateness in the same book bin because they share a Lexile level (as my own favorite Lexile odd couple, Clifford and Hemingway, do, with both clocking in at 610L). And for those of us who strongly believe in the power of choice and interest-based reading, young adult writer Mike Mullin shares a chilling story in a blog post about a mother frantically searching for a book that her dystopian-loving 6th grade daughter, whose Lexile level was 1000, would be allowed to read for school. The Giver—out. Fahrenheit 451—out. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—out, all because of Lexile levels which, in its arbitrariness and control, seems like something out of those dystopian books.

text complexity triangleWhile I can’t vouch for the intentions of the Common Core authors (as I can’t for any writer without direct communication), this is not what’s stated in the Standards themselves. In Appendix A’s “Approach to Text Complexity,” the Common Core authors offer a three-part model for measuring text complexity, which they capture with a now familiar graphic. This model, they clearly state, “consists of three equally important parts”—the qualitative dimensions, the quantitative dimensions, and the reader and the task—all of which must be considered when determining a text’s complexity in order to address “the intertwined issues of what and how students read.” Yet how often does that actually happen?

The Arrival coverThe sad fact is that too many schools, reading programs and test makers rely on quantitative measures such as Lexiles to make text selections for students because it’s simple and easy. Lexiles can be found with a click of a mouse, while assessing the qualitative measures is harder and much more time consuming, even when we use rubrics. That’s because the rubrics are often filled with abstract words that are open to interpretation, and they use what seems like circular logic—e.g., saying that “a text is complex if its structure is complex—which doesn’t seem terribly helpful. And how do you deal with a wordless book like Shaun Tan‘s The Arrivalwhich I recently explored with teachers from two schools that were looking at text complexity? Ban it from classrooms because, without words, there’s nothing to quantitatively measure?

Like other short cuts and quick fixes I’ve shared, dismissing a book like The Arrival, based on a non-existent Lexile level, risks short-changing students. The book requires an enormous amount of thinking, as the teachers I worked with discovered. And interestingly enough, their thinking mirrored that of the students of fourth grade teacher Steve Peterson, who wrote about his class’s journey through the book on his blog Inside the Dog. Both the fourth graders and the teachers had to make sense of what the author presented them by attending carefully to what they noticed and what they made of that. And while some of the initial ideas they came up with were different (the teachers thought the portraits on the page below were of immigrants, not terrorists, as some of Steve’s kids first did), the process was the same.


Both students and teachers had to constantly revise their understanding as they encountered new details and images that challenged or extended their thinking. And both debated the meaning of certain details in very similar ways. The teachers, for instance, argued whether the dragon-like shadow that first appeared in the picture below was real or a metaphor for something like oppression, while in a second post, Steve recounts how his kids debated whether the bird-like fish that appear later in the book were real or a metaphor for wishes.


The teachers only read the first part of the book, after which I passed out the rubric below, which many states seem to be using, and asked them how they’d qualitatively assess this text. Being wordless, the text couldn’t be scored for its Language Features, but for every other attribute on the rubric—Meaning, Text Structure and Knowledge Demands—the teachers all decided it was very complex, especially in terms of meaning.

Literary Text Complexity Rubric

If we give equal weight to both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of this text, we have to say that even with a zero Lexile level, it’s at least moderately complex. And what happens when we add in the Reader and the Task, which sometimes feels like the forgotten step-child in text complexity discussions?

Steve and I used the text for different purposes—Steve to launch a unit on immigration, me for a workshop on text complexity. But we each set up our readersNCTE Logo to engage in critical thinking, which the National Council of Teachers of English defines as “a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action.” Both the teachers and students engaged in this process not because they’d had a lesson on suspending judgment or logical inquiry, but because they were curious about what the writer might be trying to show them. And to answer that question, both the students and the teachers automatically and authentically engaged in the work the Common Core’s Reading Standards 1-6.

Unfortunately many of the tasks we set for students aim much lower than that, including some of those found in the Common Core’s Appendix B, such as the following:

Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers. (RL.3.1)

Students provide an objective summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wherein they analyze how over the course of the text different characters try to escape the worlds they come from, including whose help they get and whether anybody succeeds in escaping. (RL.11-12.2)

Each of these tasks are aimed at a particular standard, and frequently the instruction that supports them (plus the worksheets, graphic organizers and sentence starters) focuses the students’ attention on that single standard, rather than on a more holistic way of reading, which would naturally involve multiple standards. And while the Gatsby task is certainly harder than the third grade one, the prompt takes care of the hardest thinking by handing over a central idea instead of asking students to determine one.

But what if the reading task we set for students in every text they read is to think critically about what the writer is trying to explore or show them, through the details, story elements, word choice, structure—all those words that litter the Standards. Wouldn’t that, in addition to a complex qualitative measure, off-set a high Lexile level, if all three truly held equal weight?

I’ll share more thoughts on the reader and the task in an upcoming post. But for now I can’t stop thinking that if instead of ramping up the complexity of texts, we ramped up the complexity of thinking we aim for—trading in, say, some of the hardness of texts for deeper and more insightful thinking—we might, in fact, prepare students better for colleges, careers and life.

Preparation of Life Quote

Planning for What You Can’t Know in Reading Workshop

Planning for What You Can't KnowThe title and lead picture of this week’s post comes by way of Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, whose article about planning writing units of study by projecting possible teaching points rather than creating a pacing calendar with a prescribed sequence of lessons seemed utterly brilliant to me when I saw it a few years ago. The article and the book it derived from, Projecting Possibilities for Writers, was based on the idea that if we want to be responsive teachers—i.e., teachers who teach students, not curriculum—we can’t always know how a unit will unfold, as it all depends on what our students bring with them and what they do with what we instructionally offer. This doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t plan. We have plenty of plans up our sleeves, but we don’t necessarily decide what to teach and when until we see what the students do.

To help teachers wrap their minds around this, Matt and Mary Alice provide what they call “A Process for Projecting”: a template for planning, consisting of steps, that I believe has implications for reading as well. The first few steps, for instance, have teachers gathering and studying a stack of mentor texts then determining the unit’s major goals. For the first step teachers might gather texts connected by genre, author or craft then study them to think about what the authors of those texts are doing that they could invite students to emulate in their writing.

Big_Fresh_Newsletter_logoWhen it comes to reading, we might gather texts to choose a great read aloud to anchor a unit on a genre, author, topic or theme, or to create a text set. Coincidentally enough, this week’s “Big Fresh Newsletter” from Choice Literacy shares several links where phenomenal teachers, such as Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn, explain how and why they choose certain texts as read alouds to kick off their year. For my part, I usually look for a text that I anticipate students will love and that’s not too long—a great picture book or a chapter book that’s under 200 pages. I also want one with lots of opportunities for students to think meaningfully and deeply in ways I believe will add to their enjoyment and sense of agency as readers. And since at some point early in the year, I want to engage students in the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore in What Readers Really Do, I also want a text that requires students to connect details within the text to infer and that uses patterns to develop its big ideas and themes.

I look for that first when I study the texts I’ve gathered. And once I’ve narrowed the stack of books down, I look more closely to better understand the particular demands those texts put on readers, or what we might call the specific kinds of problems readers would need to solve in order to literally and inferentially comprehend and think deeply about the book’s meaning. This is, in fact, exactly what I did with the teacher I wrote about last week, as we sat down together to assess how the textbook section she wanted to use conveyed content concepts and to see if there were any  ‘holes in the cheese‘—i.e., places where students would have to connect facts and details in order to apply the concepts and infer something the writer hasn’t said explicitly.

FreedomSummerStudying texts in this way also helps teachers become more aware of how the writer of a chosen text uses specific details, imagery and patterns to explore ideas, which is how I interpret the Common Core’s reading standards on craft. As I shared in a recent post about craft, my awareness of patterns in Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple helped me move students beyond the surface level. And studying texts helped the teacher in that classroom recognize the craft in other books she hoped to use to continue the work I had started. In Deborah Wiles‘s Freedom Summer, for example, which recounts the friendship of a white and black boy in the 1960′s segregated South, she noticed a pattern around ice pops and nickels that reveals a subtle change in the boys’ relationship after a head on encounter with racism at a town swimming pool.

It’s worth noting that the point of studying texts is not to know which specific details to direct students to, but to become more aware of all a text holds so that we can better respond to students and formatively assess their thinking. It also helps us take the reading Art of Anticipationequivalent of the fifth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s planning process: Anticipating Issues and Possible Small Group Work. In looking closely at the textbook I shared last week, the teacher I worked with anticipated that her students might not catch the tiny but important word ‘in’, which explained the relationship between minerals and rocks. So we anticipated planning some small group lessons to gave students additional time to practice thinking about the relationship or connection between the key words of a text. With One Green Apple, on the other hand, I anticipated that not every student would be able to see the metaphoric connection between the green apple and the main character, Farah. And while those who couldn’t might be able to piggyback on the thinking of others, I anticipated needing to plan some small group lessons of the sort I described in an early post to give them more time to experience that kind of figurative thinking for themselves.

Projecting those needs led me immediately to the sixth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s process: I had to think about materials and resources. If I saw what I anticipated seeing during the read alouds, I’d need some short texts or excerpts, possibly at different levels, that would offer opportunities for students to practice solving the specific kinds of problems that those texts presented. Projecting possibilities in this way, I’d be on the look out for those. But I’d also need to carefully listen to students during the read aloud to see if there were other needs or miscomprehensions I hadn’t anticipated, which I’d want to address in small groups as well, so that individual children had more time to wrestle with with whatever kind of problem they’d hit.

Finally, readers who clicked through to Matt and Mary Alice’s article might have noticed that I omitted a step: Developing a Sequence of Minilessons. With the number of questions I’ve been getting lately about the what, when and how of mini-lessons, I’m saving that for another post. But I hope this one helps with whatever planning for reading you’re doing this summer.

Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

Like the words fiction and nonfiction, the word poetry sometimes seems too broad and general to contain all the varied approaches, purposes and styles of poems. And when helping teachers design units on poetry, I usually recommend narrowing the focus down to a few different kinds—which is also a way to ensure we’re not teaching the same thing grade after grade.

By kinds, though, I don’t mean forms, such as cinquains, limericks or even haiku because, unless they’re grounded in the kind of enduring understanding I explored last week, we risk sending the out the message to students that form is more important than content—that it doesn’t matter if your poem is nonsensical or hackneyed so long as it adheres to the form.

Whether it’s the five prescribed lines of a cinquain or the dictates of the five-paragraph essay, this emphasis on form can lead students to either reduce or inflate whatever it is they might want to say in order to fit the form.  Prescribing a pre-determined form also deprives students of engaging in one of the most vital, challenging but necessary aspects of writing: discovering a form that ‘informs’ your content and supports your meaning. (To see a poet who found a form that helped her express her content in a powerful way, check out Amy  VanDerwater‘s villanelle “V is for Vulture“.)

Instead of that, what I mean by ‘kinds’ are poems that seem to have a similar purpose, intention or way of working, such as poems that are built around a central metaphor, like the ones I shared two weeks ago, or poems that describe an object or phenomena in fresh, surprising language, such as “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard or almost anything in Valerie Worth‘s wonderful collection all the small poems and fourteen more

Over the years, depending on the grade, I’ve helped teachers gather different kinds of poems to use for either whole class studies or for learning centers or stations. We’ve gathered poems, for instance, that address social issues, such as “To the Pay Toilet” by Marge Piercy or “Coin Drive” by Janet Wong; and poems that explore identity, such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “I Am What I Am” by Rosario Morales. We’ve even collected poems about poetry, such as the Billy Collins poem I shared the other week and Naomi Shihab Nye‘s wonderful “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” But perhaps my favorite kind to study with students in grade five and up is what I like to call ‘small moment poems.’

Like their cousins, small moment stories, small moment poems zoom into an often autobiographical moment, but without the trajectory of beginning, middle and end or the trappings of problem and solution. They’re the kind of poems poet Charles Simic means when he says, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” And I love sharing and studying them with older students precisely because of this. For in showing us our own lives in someone else’s moment, small moment poems invite us into one of the great wonders of literature: the way that the particulars of a story or poem can give way to a more universal expression of the human condition, which is another way of saying a theme.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the poem “Taking Things Apart” from Ralph Fletcher‘s book Moving Day:

From Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Fletcher. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Used by permission.

As readers, we may never have moved to Ohio or had a ping pong table, let alone seen it dismantled, yet it’s the particulars of the poem that lets us feel the ache of being severed from possessions and places we love. That idea is conveyed through the things themselves—through the legless table and the beds left in pieces. And in this way the poem is both about this particular boy facing this particular move and the way we can all feel unmoored and anxious when our lives are taking such turns—as if our selves can be disassembled as easily as shelves.

Key to My Heart © Wendy Starling. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.wendystarling.com

By focusing on small moment poems, we can help students engage in thinking about what larger, invisible universal ideas the poet might be exploring and what aspects of the human condition their own small moments might speak to. As readers, students often do this through connections. But because small moment poems compress and distill a single experience in an accessible way, students are often able to zoom into the feelings underneath the poem, rather than get stuck on the literal level (making connections, say, to ping pong tables or cousins who live in Ohio). This also makes small moment poems great tools for helping students see the difference between a meaningful and what I sometimes call a “that’s nice, but” connection. The former unlocks the heart of the poem, usually via emotions, while the latter is just something the reader remembers that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths without additional thinking.

Many wonderful small moment poems can be found in the following collections. Take a look and reconnect with yourself in someone else’s moment (just choose carefully for classroom use as some of the poems are not appropriate for younger students):

Poetry Anthologies Containing Some Small Moment Poems: Moving Day by Ralph FletcherThe Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Workedited by Paul JaneczkoWhat Have You Lost?, edited by Naomi Shihab NyeTime You Let Me Inalso edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry 180edited by Billy CollinsGood Poemsedited by Garrison Keillor.

Figuring Out Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of that it only seems fitting to share some thoughts about poetry. In general, I want students to enjoy poetry—to be moved, delighted, heartened, or tickled by a poet’s rhythms and words—rather than to dissect it. Or as Billy Collins puts it in his wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I want them to:

. . . to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colored slide

rather than to:

. . . tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

But I also know that sometimes it’s hard to enjoy what you don’t understand, and many students are simply perplexed when they hit figurative language, especially poems that hinge on metaphors, like this one from Eve Merriam, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Do:

© 1986 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner in What Readers Really Do. © 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

In the book, we use the poem as an example of a text whose meaning cannot easily be accessed through the usual line-up of comprehension strategies. Predicting, questioning, connecting, inferring: none of them used by themselves would yield much. And as for visualizing, here’s what happened the other day when I shared Merriam’s poem with a class of fifth graders for a lesson on figurative language.

When I read the poem most of the students responded with a dumbfounded “Huh?” And when I asked them to turn and talk about what they thought the poet might be trying to say, almost all of them came up with an idea borne from visualizing: They pictured the narrator lying on the ground with a blade of grass behind her. And from the right angle they imagined it could look like the grass was coming out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

What they did here was use a strategy to make sense of the poem on a literal level—that is, they envisioned the narrator and a real blade of grass that, through a kind of optical illusion, appeared to be emerging from the narrator’s forehead. But they couldn’t get beyond the literal level, which is hardly ever where deeper meaning lies. So I pulled out the following teaching point, which I had tucked up my sleeve:

Sometimes, I said, poets don’t literally mean what they say, and  one of our first jobs as readers is to consider whether something in the poem might not mean exactly what it says. I then asked them to turn and talk again about whether they thought anything in the poem might not be meant literally, and as the teacher and I moved around the room, we overhead the word ‘metaphor’ coming up in the students’ discussions.

When we shared out, everyone agreed that the narrator of the poem hadn’t really become a unicorn (though there still was some disagreement about the blade of grass). They could identify it as a metaphor, but they didn’t know, as readers, what to do with it. So I offered the following instruction: Once readers have decided that something might not literally mean what it says—i.e., that it might be a metaphor—they try to brainstorm words associated with the metaphor, thinking about the characteristics or qualities of the thing being compared. Then they take those words back to the poem to see they can help them understand more.

You could say I was asking them to make a connection, though it wasn’t of the “I once had a unicorn lunchbox” variety. I asked them to make a particular kind of connection for a particular purpose that was based on how some particular poems worked. And when I gave them another chance to turn and talk, they came up with words like this:

                    • Magical
                    • Beautiful
                    • Mythic
                    • Amazing
                    • Glittery
                    • Sparkling
                    • Girlie
                    • One of a Kind
                    • Special

They then took these words back to the poem (discarding girlie, which they decided didn’t fit) and came up with new interpretations. This time around they thought the poet might be trying to say that the first day of spring was magical or that it can make you feel sparkling and special—or tingly in a good way. Then to give them more chance to practice this, we divided the class up into groups and gave them each another poem to look at that required the same kind of thinking, along with a piece of chart paper on which they could share what they came up with. And the thinking they did was great.

One group, for instance, looked at “Black Box” from Nikki Grimes‘s novel Bronx Masquerade, which pairs prose monologues with poems by different characters. The poem begins with the lines “In case I forgot to tell you/I’m allergic to boxes,” and after wrestling with it for a while, they decided that the narrator wasn’t literally allergic to boxes but rather had a bad reaction (i.e., was allergic) to being contained or packaged (the boxes) with words like jock or geek.

And here’s the chart of the group that looked at Lindamichellebaron‘s poem “Even Weeds Have Needs,” which begins:

Even weeds have needs, you know,

Don’t make me creep through cracks,

or race for space to grow.

Poet feels as if she is "weed"→ unwanted, but she still needs someone to take care of her.

Poet feels as if she is being stamped on.

These students engaged in exactly the kind of thinking experienced readers do invisibly all the time. And I have no doubt that eventually these students will be able to do so invisibly as well, provided they have additional opportunities to engage in what a New Yorker article on coaching calls “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”

According to the article’s author Atul Gawande, expertise “requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.” This lesson helped students first become aware of what they couldn’t do and then of what they could do through deliberate effort. And having made that visible for them, the students are now better positioned to do the work automatically, without the need of charts.

It will also allow them to enjoy poems more, which is, after all, the whole point. So for students who struggle with metaphors, remember:

Snowflake vs. Snowdrift Metaphors from http://www.toothpastefordinner.com