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

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

  1. Vicki,
    I so agree that MANY seem to grab on to the “qualitative” measure of text complexity. I know that the “math” part is something that any computer can easily measure. But it is so sad when students are told that they “can’t read ‘x’ because it is not at their lexile level!” The whole notion of reader interest can push a student to attempt climbing to the mountain top in order to read a desired text.

    This quote will carry me for the week and beyond:
    “…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.”

    Without “thinking” there is no learning!

    Thanks for a great post to begin the week!

    • Thanks, Fran. Unfortunately, it’s taken me till the end of the week to get to reply! This feels like another moment in time when I really feel teachers stepping up to the plate—questioning more, taking ownership more. Here we have to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of having kids read complex texts without doing all that much thinking (beyond, perhaps, figuring out some vocabulary words). That can’t possibly serve them well. So that should be our new mantra: Without thinking there is no learning!

      • And we also have to make sure that students are NOT reading every piece four times in a very ritualistic manner that has nothing to do with thinking! Kids currently hate “close reading” when it is a formula, required lock-step non-thinking action… Just another “tell me what to do” requirement.

        The beauty, the joy, and the love of reading AND thinking has to be the focus!

      • Yes, to beauty, joy and the love of reading AND thinking. Or as Annie Dillard puts it: “Why are we reading if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mysteries probed?”

  2. After reading Steve’s posts I thought The Arrival would be the perfect read aloud, for the very reason that it would put the work squarely in the student’s hands with absolutely no lexile barrier. The work, “a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action” would be focused on. I previewed the text with one student. Her comment was – This will be so hard. Kids don’t pay enough attention when there are words. SO true. When I read aloud, I take the physical work of reading out so they can do the thinking but still, they miss a lot — especially when they don’t feel like they need to work (e.g. when the text complexity is low). It seems simple. Students, teachers and those who buy packaged programs focusing on lexile levels need to know to look for more, knowing that there is always more. I am hoping that reading a book like The Arrival will show students, as it showed your teachers a big lesson on MORE. That the author wants you to understand and look for the more.

    • I’ve done the book with students, too, including most recently a small self-contained class of 6th graders with special needs, and I think it can be a truly formative experience. When they first hit the picture with the dragon’s shadow, a great conversation erupted about whether it was the shadow of the creature who appears on the front cover. They went back and forth, first noticing that the front cover creature’s tail wasn’t serrated like the shadow and then they ‘interpreted’ the gestures and expressions between the creature and the man to further confirm that the creatures couldn’t be one and the same. And when I asked them how it felt doing that they said it was hard but fun. That seemed to me like the ideal combination, hard but fun! Hope your kids feel that way, too!

  3. At the high school level, content drives selection of text; when social studies classes are learning about WWI, we read “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The lexile numbers are not as big an issue and for low level readers, we offer support with the audio versions or abridged texts. When I come to a prepared prompt like the one for “The Great Gatsby” (“different characters try to escape the worlds they come from, including whose help they get and whether anybody succeeds in escaping”) I wonder if I misread the book. Hmmmmm….Who escapes in Gatsby?
    I don’t think I could answer that effectively.
    Instead we center our focus on motifs (ex: in Gatsby could be “dream” or “eyes”) and let students choose and explore how a motif contributes to theme (our way of preventing ” “handing over a central idea instead of asking students to determine one.”) This also works well for the photos of the gilded age in the Library of Congress archives or in stills from movie productions (none of these have lexiles) to use as supporting evidence when they do write about the text.
    However, my real reason for responding was to second the need “for students to think critically about what the writer is trying to explore or show them, through the details, story elements, word choice, structure.” Of course, that might mean dabbling in Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory since what the reader got from a text could surprise the artist who created that text, especially if there was critical thinking going on!
    (Ah…a day off gives me the time to respond in writing, (rather than agreeing mentally) to one of your posts!!)
    PS: Tell that 6th grader “The Handmaid’s Tale” is off limits….

    • I’ve had the same experience, Colette, with prompts and lessons in scripted material that ‘tell’ students what the theme should be—most recently in Expeditionary Learning’s 5th grade unit using Esperanza Rising where at one point the teacher is instructed to make sure the students understand that ‘the heartbeat of the earth’ is the theme of the book. Really? And I just read a great post by a teacher whose understanding of Charlotte’s Web was quite different than the one she found in Achieve the Core’s unit on the book. At the end she says the Achieve the Core’s culminating task focused on something that she didn’t believe was the main point White wanted to make. But more importantly I think it wasn’t what she took away from the book, just as I took something far different away from Esperanza Rising and you did from Gatsby. The myth they’re spreading with all this CCS gunk is that there’s one right answer, which of course there isn’t. (Nor is it more important for first grader to ‘learn’ about early civilizations than, say, their local firehouse.) And, yes, that means dabbling in real reader response, paired with text work like focusing on motifs or patterns.

      And since I have a little time this morning, too, just wanted to say that not only did I appreciate the post about that absurd first grade unit (http://usedbooksinclass.com/2014/02/15/perplexed-in-ct-by-recommendations-for-engageny-curriculum/), but I adored the math & poetry one – http://usedbooksinclass.com/2014/02/20/poetry-friday-poetic-patterns-meet-the-spiral-of-theodorus/. Truly inspiring!

  4. Wonderful, thoughtful, well argued post. Yes, it should be about the complexity of thought for our students. This is what they will carry with them into college and career – not a lexile level. Spending time with a text and analyzing it through all those lenses to get the big picture should be our goal. I think many teachers are stuck on the ‘standards’ which to my mind is the Old way of teaching. They want to create assessments for standards that they can easily grade and check off as ‘done’. We need to step back and think about how to teach our students to delve into a book and use multiple ways to explore the text, to come up with big ideas and original thinking. It begins with teaching them to love books and reading. We need to expose them to many kinds of texts with lots of opportunities to talk and write about what they’ve read. Not teach a skill, provide a worksheet, give an assessment and call it ‘done’.

    • Hear, hear! I couldn’t have said that better! The problem seems to be that no one has figured out how to package and make money off of a love of reading, though, of course, that’s the key. And I think thinking deeply only enhances, rather than diminishes, that love, because it invites you to see and feel more. The beauty of the CCS (at least as I first thought) was that it represented a whole vision of the work of reading, but that only happens if we teach it holistically and not focus on checking off parts, as you so rightly point out. So thanks for adding your powerful words to the conversation!

  5. Vicki,
    Thank you so much for linking to the work we are doing in our classroom. Much of what I have learned lately, and played with in our classroom, has been learned in “conversation” with you and the readers of your blog. What a gift for the mind!

    You wrote: “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.”

    Which makes me think some pretty subversive thoughts, especially in a time when lessons must be focused tightly on strategic reading. As I struggle with finding my own voice within the box of a packaged program, I sometimes feel like an apostate reading teacher. At times like these I wonder…Why can’t the “lesson” (I might even call it an “experience”…) be tightly focused on following a hunch? On considering why the heck did the author do that? On connecting the dots? On rambunctious play with an idea? These seem like the things that readers do all the time, that give us joy and the desire for more where that came from. <>

    • I’ve been wondering, Steve, how you’ve faring with the packaged stuff—and keep hoping that maybe district like yours finally see the light. Rambunctiously playing with an idea represents much higher order thinking (I think) than spending time practicing the skill of asking questions in isolation. And your kids already know how to ask great questions without all that explicit teaching because you’ve helped them tap into their curiosity—and they’ve felt the excitement of discovering answers to their questions, which only makes them want to do more. It will happen, I believe. And in the meantime, take some solace from knowing how others (like my friend Suzanne Marten in her comment above) value the work you and your kids are doing.

      • Vicki,
        It really does matter to me (and a whole bunch of others) that there are places like yours that take the ideas of teachers seriously, that take the thinking of children as paramount. Maybe I’m going through a bit of a teaching mid-life crisis (despite the gray hair, I’ve only been at this for a little over a decade now, so…I’m due for a crisis!), but it seems I spend entirely too much time on less important things, and too little time on the important stuff. The important stuff is thinking/connecting/exploring/building, and logging — like, say, Darwin on the BEAGLE– the things we experience, the thinking we do on that journey for later reflection.

        Thank you!

      • Just caught up with your corseting crisis post and totally get the frustration. Whether our proposal gets approved or not, I hope you come to NCTE this year because it will both rejuvenate you and give you lots of ammunition to fight back against any vision of reading that doesn’t include true thinking. And know how much it matters to me to see teachers like you & Julieanne & Fran run with ideas and practices that I can’t always get teachers to try on here because they too are often expected to implement these tightly focused lessons. I feel that’s changing with a new mayor and chancellor but it’s going to take quite a while, I fear, to repair all the damage.

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  7. Complex thinking and handing the work over to the students/readers… an experience tightly focused on following a hunch… this is the REAL work. It is very inspiring to read others thinking these complex thoughts and following these interesting hunches in this space.

    I have been using The Arrival for years with a wide variety of audiences from families to ELLs to students who struggle with negotiating print, so it is wonderful to follow Vicki and Steve’s interwoven texts about the book. I recently read it with a group of young afterschool staff members. As we were reflecting at the end one said that she had always been the “star student” and she had thought it was because reading was easy for her. But this book made her work in ways she never had before. She said she never knew reading could be so hard or so good. And that’s the truth isn’t it? The complex thinking is rich and rewarding and that is what we want readers of all ages to experience.


    • Last year I read the poem “Food. Music. Memory,” which Dorothy and I shared in What Readers Really Do, with a group of special ed high school students. And at the end of the session one of the kids said, “That was hard but fun.” That’s when we know we’re really hitting that mark, when we’ve helped kids see and actually experience that thinking hard can be good and fun. And I’m not sure I know another book as useful in helping kids—and teachers–get that than The Arrival. So thanks for stopping by!

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