Toward a Saner View of Text Complexity


As happened a few years ago, when eighth grade students took to Facebook to share reactions to a nonsensical passage about a talking pineapple from the New York State ELA test, this year’s Common Core-aligned test made it into the news again for another Facebook incident. Somehow a group called Education is a Journey Not a Race got their hands on a copy of the fourth grade test and posted over three dozen images of passages and questions on their Facebook page. Facebook quickly took the page down, but they couldn’t stop the articles that soon appeared, such as “New York State Tests for Fourth-Graders Included Passages Meant for Older Students” from the Wall Street Journal and “Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core test” from The Washington Post. 

PG13_rating_WaiAs their titles suggest, these pieces took a hard look at the kind of questions and concerns teachers have been raising since the Standards first appeared. And while it’s great that the press is finally reporting on what students really face on these tests, it seems like they haven’t completely grasped that these exceedingly hard and often age-inappropriate texts and the convoluted, picayune questions that come with them are precisely what the authors of the Common Core had in mind.

As I write in my new book (which Katie Wood Ray, my editor extraordinaire, assures me I’m closing in on), the Common Core seems to have ushered in an age where third grade has become the new middle school, middle school is the new high school, and high school is the new college. And that’s all because of the particular vision the Common Core authors have about what it means to be college and career ready.

According to the Common Core, students need to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction plus have regular practice with academic language to be ready for college and text-complexity-trianglecareers. And as many of us know by now, they determine a text’s complexity by supposedly using a three-part model that considers the following:

  • A text’s Quantitative dimensions, as measure by Lexile Levels;
  • Its Qualitative dimensions, which scores the complexity of a text’s meaning, structure, language features and knowledge demands through a rubric;
  • And the Reader and the Task, which supposedly  involves “teachers employing their professional judgment, experience and knowledge of their students” to determine if a particular text and/or task is appropriate for students.

I say supposedly because if you look at the texts and tasks on the test as well as those in many Common Core-aligned packaged programs, you’ll see some patterns emerge. First there seems to be a preference for texts with high quantitative Lexile levels, regardless of The Clay Marblethe other two factors. And when it comes to the qualitative dimension, tests, packaged programs and even home-grown close reading lessons seem to favor texts that score high in terms of their language features and knowledge demands—i.e., texts with lots of hard vocabulary and references to things students might not know.

These preferences are why a text like Minfong Ho’s The Clay Marblewhich recounts the story of a Cambodian brother and sister who flee to a refuge camp in Thailand in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and comes with a grade equivalent reading level of 6.8—was on New York State’s fourth grade test. And it’s why a text like Behind Rebel Lineswhich tells the true-life story of a young woman who disguised herself as a man to join the Union Army during the Civil War and comes with a grade reading level of 7.2—is part of Pearson’s Ready Gen’s third grade curriculum.You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the Reader and the Task, and that’s because it’s often not considered when it comes to choosing texts. On tests, in packaged programs and even in many home-grown close reading lessons, every child is expected to read the same text and perform the same tasks, which usually consist of answering questions aligned to individual standards. The only adjustment that seems to be made is the amount of scaffolding a teacher provides—and the Common Core Standards specifically direct teacher to “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding and supports so that it is possible for students reading below grade level [to achieve] the required ‘step’ of growth on the ‘staircase’ of complexity.”

Overly Scaffolded BuildingAs I said last year at NCTE, the problem with this is that some children need so much support in order to read those required complex texts that we can barely see the student beneath all that scaffolding. In fact, when we adopt that “Do whatever it takes” approach to getting kids through those complex texts, we not only risk losing sight of them, but all that scaffolding inevitably limits the amount of thinking we’re letting students do. And in this way, I fear we’ve traded in complex thinking for getting through complex texts—and the ability to think complexly is surely as needed to succeed in college as possessing content knowledge and vocabulary.

And so, in the new book, I propose an alternate route up that staircase of complexity. It’s one that truly takes the reader into account and seeks a different balance between the complexity of a text, as determined by its Lexile level and high scores for its language and knowledge demands, and the complexity of thinking we ask students to do. And I spell out what that could look like in the following chart:

Alternate Complexity Route

Following this alternate route, for example, would mean not choosing a text like Behind Rebel Lines for third grade because, as you can see below, the vocabulary is so daunting, it’s hard to imagine a third grader making much of it without the teacher handing over the meaning (and, as a parent of a third grader writes, its meaning isn’t always age appropriate).

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Instead, you could choose something more like Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say which is also set during the Civil War and explores similar themes. But because it’s far more accessible at the language features level, students who were invited to read closely and deeply could actually think about and construct those themes for themselves. They could even figure out what the Civil War was without the teacher explaining it because the book is full of clues that, if connected, could allow students to actually build that knowledge.

PinkandSayPink and Say Excerpt

Finally, it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one advocating for an alternate route. In a postscript to his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad OnesTom Newkirk makes a case for what he calls “a more plausible road map for creating readers who can handle difficulty”: giving students “abundant practice with engaging contemporary writing that does not pose a constant challenge,” which can help them build the “real reading power” needed to tackle challenging texts. And more recently, in the final post from his great series on literacy, Grant Wiggins called for making what he called “a counter-intuitive choice of texts,” that is, choosing “texts that can be easily read and grasped literally by all students” but which require complex thinking at the level of themes and ideas.

Those seem like incredibly sane ideas to me. And as for what’s insane, I’ll leave that to Einstein:

Einstein Insanity Quote

40 thoughts on “Toward a Saner View of Text Complexity

  1. Like many others, I am really looking forward to your new book, Vicki. I love your thinking about using somewhat more accessible texts to explore complex themes/ideas; the photo above is a perfect visual metaphor for way really complex texts require so much scaffolding that the student gets obscured. One of your minor points also struck me: “…every child is expected to read the same text and perform the same tasks, which usually consist of answering questions aligned to individual standards.” It’s the individual standards part that I find daunting (and a little bit depressing.) As you’ve said before, reading is not a set of isolated activities directed toward narrow goals, but a whole host of activities directed toward making meaning. Each activity is dependent on the other. It seems logical that we might provide students with texts that engage a wide range of sense making so they focus on the meaning-making rather than a Standard completed in isolation.

    Great to see another post!

    • Thanks, Steve, I’m looking forward to the new book, too—if only so I can get back to blogging!
      I make more of the point you picked up on in the book because it seems so crazy to me as well to aim for individual standards. And I try to show that if we truly open the door to students making meaning of what they’re reading, they’ll engage automatically in at least the work of first six reading standards, if not the whole kit and kaboddle. So we’ll see. I’m a little afraid I’m preaching to the choir, but with over 180,000 kids opting out of the NY test this year, the choir seems to be growing. Hope you’ve been well as you wrap up the year.

  2. You have a new book coming out?!!! Can’t wait to read it
    I love the image of not being able to see the child for all the scaffolding, and totally agree with your point about who is doing all the work and all the thinking if that much scaffolding is in place to get the child through the complex text! Better to have complex thinking than a text that is simply just too hard.
    When is your book expected out?
    Thanks for sharing your thinking with us. I needed a dose of it!

    • Yes, Allison, that’s why I haven’t been blogging so much. I’ve been keeping my nose to the grindstone with this book. I’ll definitely be finished this summer, so it won’t come out until early next year. I’d hoped to have it out this fall, but the writing has taken longer, as it sometimes does. So good to hear from you, though. Fran, Julieanne and I thought of you when they were here a few months ago for a TC reunion.

  3. Vicki,
    I echo Steve’s comment: “Each activity is dependent on the other. It seems logical that we might provide students with texts that engage a wide range of sense making so they focus on the meaning-making rather than a Standard completed in isolation.” The breaking down of the standards is insane and completely contrary to what we do as we read. To ask our little ones to do this with inaccessible text is destructive on so many levels.

    Thank you for this brilliant post and a peek into the new book. The chart is a lovely teaser. We can’t wait!


    • Oh, good, the chart was meant to be a teaser—and reassurance that there really will be a book! But I’ve learned that writing about complexity can’t be rushed! But . . . did you make a decision about the summer? Do let me know if it includes NYC as I so love keeping this NYC-LA connection going!

    • Just wrote to Steve that I’m a little afraid that I’m only preaching to the choir, Tara. So I hope, too, those in power will listen—though it might be less because of this year’s Facebook scandal than the fact that over 180,000 kids in New York state opted out of the test. Smart kids!

  4. Another outstanding post. These particular lines jumped out at me, “…but all that scaffolding inevitably limits the amount of thinking we’re letting students do. And in this way, I fear we’ve traded in complex thinking for getting through complex texts…” Wow – that’s golden. It always comes down to process, and making our students aware of their own particular way in to a text. Thanks for always sharing such sophisticated thinking. Can’t wait to hear you speak in Paramus this summer! I’m in Tom’s coaching cohort, so we discuss your blog often.

    • If twitter was any indication, that was the line that really stood out, which is just what I’d hoped. And so great to know you’ll be at the Summer Institute, which I’m really excited about. Looking forward to talking in person in addition to online!

  5. I think that Wiggins describes the characteristics of high quality literature we should all be looking for: ““texts that can be easily read and grasped literally by all students” but which require complex thinking at the level of themes and ideas.”
    Like the rest of your readers, I’m looking forward to the books’ publication!

    • Hey Matt! The last few weeks I’ve been in schools that have been inviting kids to read deeply in accessible texts throughout the year, and the kinds of thinking they’re doing at this point is truly amazing – in fact it actually seems on par with the kind of thinking I heard at Opal. All we have to do is meet them where they are, open the door to give them space and listen. And it’s been a nice reminder that it can happen in struggling city schools, too. (And thanks for the Donald Hall essay suggestions! I’m loving them.)

  6. Glad to hear the writing is going well. How lucky that you get to say, “My editor, Katie Wood Ray…”

    I’ve always been a proponent of more complex thinking over more complex text. That’s why I value all of the great work we do with read aloud — a shared text read to the students by the teacher.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Mary Lee! And yes, I am almost done. It’s just frustrating knowing that what seems so obvious to us is seemingly so incomprehensible to so many in power. It’s good to know, though, that places like Dublin exist—though even here there’s a few schools that, after a year of pushing complex texts, have returned to a saner way of doing things.

  7. Very poignant article. I would even apply the same concept to Shakespeare. My students jump for joy when they simply understand Shakespeare’s ideas, let alone evaluate the scope and complexity of them. They are able to produce much better writing using contemporary nonfiction texts. On a side note: that whole insanity witticism is most likely misattributed to Einstein. Keep spreading the good word.

    • Thanks, Alex. And, yes, Shakespeare is another case in point. Hard to think deeply in a nuanced way when so much mental energy is being expended on just figuring out what it means literally, which is why we need a balance. And as for that side note: I keep running into misattributed quotes—especially by Einstein! Apparently Einstein never said those “If you can’t explain it simply, to a six year old, or to your grandmother, you don’t understand it well enough,” quotes either. But I like to think he may have thought them.

      • Old Al is the most misattributed people ever when it comes to quotes. That insanity quote appears to come from AA-type groups, where it refers to addiction. It doesn’t appear to have ever been said by anyone. Likewise the quote about explaining something to your [fill in the blank]. (Richard Feynmann once said he didn’t want to lecture on a certain topic because he didn’t understand it well enough to explain it.)

        The understanding quote is an apt sentiment, but the insanity one only makes sense in certain contexts. Musicians and athletes repeat actions constantly with high expectation of results changing over time. As the New York City street musician said when asked by tourists how to get to Carnegie Hall: “Practice, practice, practice!”

      • I’m afraid this is not the first time I’ve learned that Einstein never said something a hundred of websites say he did. But I think the sentiment is close to something my albeitly limited research says he did indeed say: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And to keep trying to do that, as the current system does, seems pretty insane to me.

      • The ability of the interweb to spread both information and misinformation makes sourcing quotes extremely problematical. I once spent hours trying to track down who *really* made that quote about people deserving the government they get (a French writer I’d never heard of). The WikiQuote site is my usual starting place, as it requires sources for quotes, and it often contains information about mis-attributed quotes.

        The one you used is probably a paraphrase of, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” That’s from a NYT article, “Atomic Education Urged by Einstein” so education is definitely involved there!

        Regardless of the quotes (and Einstein ones are kind of a hot button with me, so forgive me for being so pedantic), the sentiment *you* are expressing, I think is right on the money.

        I’ve long believed education (meaning both knowledge and the ability to think critically) is the only key to human survival.

        Leon Wieseltier when he appeared on “The Colbert Report” was challenged by Stephen to sum up his view of modern life in ten words. Wieseltier nailed it: “Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”

        We do indeed need to change our approach!

  8. Here I am trying to think of a way to explain “rigor” to my HS teachers in English and Social Studies, and you post a chart that explains to them why they are so tired after teaching the traditional dose of the canon (and why so many of their students are not engaged.) I am trying to make them understand that there is more than high Lexile levels in preparing students to be college and career ready…and here you are, illustrating the critical thinking opportunities available in accessible texts and defending their use.
    On the way home from work yesterday came another illustration from NPR that centered on another (unexpected) source: a story about the economy on the Island of Sodor where the trains from Thomas the Tank Engine work. Law Professor Paul Horwitz shared his views on the market forces at work in a blog post, called “The Law and Economics of Thomas the Tank Engine.” In the story, Horowitz is quoted,as writing “Think about Sir Topham Hatt for a bit. He is a caricature of a robber baron, but he’s not simply an unrestrained successful capitalist in an open and competitive market, a Gates or Carnegie.”
    His original post was linked to in the Financial Times (certainly career-readiness worthy, eh?)
    So, I will work with my teachers to help them to understand that critical thinking is not about the # of pages of a text and that critical thinking may not be possible in the study guide questions for a canonical text that 1/2 of them cannot read, BUT I need your help…
    Publish soon, dear Vicki, so that I can share your book with them!

    • Believe me, Colette, I’m trying to get done as fast as I can, but, yikes, it’s a hard book to write! But LOVE your Thomas the Tank Engine example! Like using The Cat in the Hat to introduce the Psyhco-analytic theory (which I also loved)!

  9. Vicki,
    A common theme from all of your readers is that we hope Katie Wood Ray is correct and your book will soon be available. You have addressed so many parts of the complex vision of CCSS here:
    1) the CCSS author’s visions of how to close the college and career ready gap
    2) published programs and their vision
    3) those that advocate writing the perfect “close reading questions” because after all the correct answers to those questions would be news and note-worthy (HA!)
    4) the definition and application of text complexity and the
    5) whole role of thinking in this process!

    If a student can’t think about the text, there seems to be little point in “making them” read and mark up or answer questions about the text that originate only in the minds of the adults. “Let them read” might be a better mantra!


    • I’m workin’ on it, Fran! And I’m pushing back on the whole idea that vocabulary and background knowledge is what students most need in college and careers. But . . . on a totally different topic, Congrats for a new Grandson! And so glad that I finally seem to be getting your blog again. Now I just need to figure out why I’m not getting Julieanne’s!

  10. Hi Vicki,
    Thanks for writing this post. I look forward to reading your new book. I just have one question, it’s more of a worry really, about Lexile levels. I am not a supporter of using Lexile levels as a measure of anything worthwhile. Lexile levels are inaccurate in terms of matching books to kids, particularly kids who struggle with reading or are reluctant readers. I notice that on your chart above you wrote “a lower (more reasonable) Lexile level”. I wonder if there is a reasonable Lexile level. What do you mean by that? I’d love to hear your take on this issue.

    • So sorry to take so long in responding, Elisa. The end of the year is always nutty. But I agree totally that Lexiles are a totally unreliable measure of virtually anything beyond sentence length and word frequency—neither of which is particularly useful when it comes to choosing a book to read. But for better or (I’d say) worse, Lexile levels are part of the lingua franca around text complexity, and I used them to try to make a plea for using texts that are more accessible but offer opportunities for deep and meaningful thinking, rather than choosing insanely hard texts in terms of Lexile levels simply because they’re hard, which I see happening too often. Of course I think the best texts are those that engage kids in meaningful, interesting and relevant ways, invite intriguing age-appropriate conversations and thinking, and are beautifully written. But the sad fact is that none of those things are deemed to be important when it comes to choosing texts the Common Core way.

      • Hi Vicki,
        No worries. Thanks for responding. I wish we could do away with the use of Lexiles altogether as a way to encourage more complex reading. I am surprised (and disappointed) that they have been brought back as a way to match kids and books. I now understand a little bit better your reference to lower (more reasonable) Lexile levels since we want to deepen comprehension not make it inaccessible to kids due to the difficulty of a text. Furthermore, we are forced to engage in the conversation at the point where Lexile advocates (don’t know what else to call them) can understand what is being expressed. It’s interesting to me that we can speak to both sides of the issue but the Lexile supporters can only speak one language. I hope we can weather this storm sooner rather than later.

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  12. Much needed conversation regarding reading comprehension in today’s schools! When I was a child, I read because I loved reading. Goosebumps, The Hardy Boys, and Choose Your Own Adventure series were among my favorites, but my reading appetite was voracious, I’d sit in front of our large bookcase for minutes(!) at a time thumbing through the titles trying to find one I hadn’t read yet! When I’d been through just about everything interesting to my childish mind, I’d pedal over to the local library and stay there for hours! To me it’s simple, give kids access to quality reading material and show them the ropes, then give them freedom! Heck even give them the shitty romance novels! It worked for me (I was homeschooled, I wasn’t exposed to the joys of “required reading” until my high school years of public integration).

    • @gapawa, yes, yes, yes! There are too many restrictions, too many controls, on children’s reading today. When I feel myself pulled in that direction, I go back to my roots. You say it so well in your comment above.

  13. I see the chart “Alternate Routes…” shows a copyright date of 2105. I hope the book is still around to go with it.

  14. This is SO true. I’m a high school ESL teacher. Not only do our students have to take those same tests (can you image being 3rd grader who is just learning English?), but they also have to take the NYSESLT. This year the NYSESLAT was aligned to the Common Core. For the high schools, this test really measured content knowledge which the students had yet to learn (content from courses that many had yet to take), and not language acquisition. Thank you for this article.

    • Thanks, Barb. I’ve done some work at an NYC high school with a lots of ELLs this year and was shocked by the amount of very content-specific knowledge and vocabulary needed for this year’s NYSESLT. And you’re 100% right: kids would do much, much better with a teacher in a classroom than one who’s out administering tests that too often just feel insane.

      • It looks like we’re both preaching to the choir, but your article and reply further validate my opinion that these assessments are insane. There has to be a better way.

  15. First off, that post was amazing. As a 11th grade student who just took the SBAC exam, I found myself questioning the purpose of it. I miss the days of being able to read whatever I wanted, whatever interested me. Now, I’m told by standardized testing to read passages that just aren’t interesting or informative to me, obscure works (which are occasionally fun to read, but quite often I question the juxtaposition of schools: keep up with the modern world, but we’re going to make you learn how to read and analyze archaic texts; I know the goal is to stay well-rounded and informed, but as a student, sometimes the pressure is just too much. There’s too much a student must know that I feel spread thin, unable to do what excites me.), and other things that don’t seem like they would benefit me in what I want to do with life (STEM fields). Although teachers encourage us, students, to have fun, standardized tests tries cookie-cutting everyone. Everyone has to see the same things from the same text, no matter how boring it is to us.

    Sorry, your post was amazing and I’ve been bottling up quite a lot of frustration towards the education system, which has sucked a lot of fun out of learning– I just had to rant a bit.
    I hope to read more gems like this!

    • From one Vicki to another: I so completely understand your frustration – and love that you’ve taken to the blogosphere to express some of it. Unfortunately schooling often gets in the way of real education, which requires spirit, curiosity, creativity and passion as much as stamina and grit. And the kind of questioning that standardized tests actually dissuade. Just know that there are others out there who are raising the same questions you are – like Ken Robinson whose illustrated TedTalk you might enjoy:

  16. Wonderful article. I shudder to read stories like the ones you link regarding Common Core nowadays because I got out of public school just in time.
    When I was in kindergarten, my teacher recognized that my reading skill was much higher than anyone else’s (I was at a 4th grade level) and put me into a special group. I have benefited from that immensely throughout my life. My fear now is that there are kids who are in similar situation who get overlooked in favor of passing exams that really don’t tell us anything.
    I know people in their mid-twenties who have an aversion to reading because of negative experiences when they were younger, and it makes me very sad.

    • Your comment is a testament to how one-size-fits-all thinking hardly ever works. Just glad you managed to get through and hold on to a love of reading.

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