Teachers Tackle Text Complexity

By Catherine Gewertz — March 14, 2011 11 min read
History teacher Elise DeBoard works with 11th and 12th graders last week at International Community High School in the Bronx on exercises to make their upcoming reading assignments more understandable. Education assistant Shohel Rahman leans over to help out.
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On a freezing morning in February, teachers from a Bronx high school pore over excerpts and guidelines, trying to figure out whether they should teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or leave it to college professors.

A team of teachers from International Community High School joined colleagues from 17 other schools here to wrestle with the American classic in a basement meeting room as part of their city’s attempt to beef up secondary literacy instruction.

In the first year of a pilot program, the 18 schools are digging into new ways to accomplish two objectives emphasized in the common-core standards: engage students in increasingly complex texts as they move through school and help them conquer literacy skills specific to disciplines such as history and science. Spearheaded by the nation’s governors and schools chiefs, the standards have been adopted in most states, including New York.

The teachers’ daylong session illustrates the heightened attention being trained on adolescent literacy, in the wake of mounting evidence that young people are leaving high school unable to tackle the reading and writing demanded of them in college and good jobs.

Research suggests that a trend toward less challenging texts in high school, and a tilt toward narrative texts, at the expense of informational and expository ones, have left young people particularly weak at comprehending and dissecting information from difficult texts and using it to build evidence-based arguments.

A 2006 study by ACT Inc., for instance, found that the biggest stumbling block for students who fell short of the readiness scores in reading on its college-entrance exam was answering questions derived from complex texts.

Challenging Work

As they analyze Huck Finn, the New York teachers note that the book’s sentence structures are uncomplicated, but that Mark Twain’s use of irony and the flammable topics of race and slavery can make a full, nuanced grasp of the book difficult.

They struggle to assign levels of complexity to five different aspects of the novel, according to a rubric they’re devising: How daunting does the text look on the page? How easy and natural is its language? How circuitous is its plot? Is it a text with multiple, elusive layers of meaning? What prior knowledge must a reader bring to understand it?

Guided by Sheena Hurvey, the chief education officer of the professional-development group AUSSIE, the teachers discuss the novel’s qualities at length, and at times with obvious frustration, unable to agree on what grade bands the novel is best suited for.

ESL and global-history teacher Tim Blackburn points to a "cause and effect" exercise that he uses to help prepare his freshmen and sophomores at New York City's International Community High School tackle a reading assignment.

Its language is straightforward enough for most 8th graders, one teacher said, as long as deep classroom discussion parses the topics of race and slavery. No way, another teacher asserted; both its style and substance suggest it is best taught in college.

From the sidelines, literacy-pilot supervisor Meesha Brown observed the disagreements and discomfort of the dialogue. “This is really challenging work,” she said quietly to a visitor. “And that’s exactly why we need to be doing it.”

Reading by Subject

Ms. Brown listened along with the teachers to a presentation by University of Illinois at Chicago reading experts Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan, who detailed the differences in literacy skills that history, science, math, and English/language arts demand of adolescents.

Usually, they said, teachers impart skills that are generalizable from one subject to another, such as “exit notes,” in which students jot down at the end of a lesson what they learned or are still confused about. But at the high school level, cracking the code in each discipline requires strategies specific to each subject—strategies that reflect how experts in those subjects reason and build knowledge, they said.

In English, for instance, students might read a short story in its entirety, then go back and analyze its themes and structure for discussion. But in math, they would benefit from learning to read more like mathematicians do: reading and rereading the same few lines of text, which requires building tolerance for the intensity of “close reading,” said Ms. Shanahan. (Close reading is also a technique prized across the disciplines in the common standards.)

In history, students often need help making connections among events, evaluating information from multiple sources, and seeing how the author’s point of view serves as an interpretive lens, Mr. Shanahan said.

Science demands that students absorb information from the text’s prose as well as its other representations, such as diagrams and formulas, Ms. Shanahan said. Teachers in each subject must also wade into the specific grammar and vocabulary challenges of their disciplines, the researchers said.

Helping adolescents become strong readers means that teachers need new ways to help them gain entree to higher-order knowledge in the disciplines and ascend what the common standards refer to as a “staircase” of increasingly complex texts. Teachers in New York and elsewhere are beginning to craft or search for ways to gauge a text’s complexity more fully than is permitted by traditional readability formulas, which are typically based on the length of words and sentences and the familiarity of words.

The Common Standards' Approach

The common standards call for students to “read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently” and at progressively higher levels as they move through school. Appendix A of the standards defines a three-part model for determining how difficult a text is to read. The model presumes that all three elements interact when teachers match texts with students.


SOURCE: Adapted from the Common Core Standards

Advances in cognitive science, linguistics, and computer technology are opening new doors on the text-complexity front. One newer model, called Coh-Metrix, analyzes text using 60 factors, including syntax, “narrativity,” word abstraction, and “cohesion,” or how well the text makes connections for the reader, facilitating understanding. The common standards propose a three-part approach to text-complexity. (See chart, right.)

Researchers such as the Shanahans are drawing on linguistics and other fields to define the differences in the ways that experts in each discipline read and reason. Those differences, they say, can help teachers figure out how the speed bumps students encounter in reading biochemistry, for instance, differ from those they face in studying European history.

In preparing students to succeed in college or build solid careers, the text-complexity and disciplinary-literacy skills are inseparable, said David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the common standards in English/language arts.

“A great transition will come when science and history teachers recognize and act on the fact that in order to build knowledge in their disciplines, students must read complex text well in those disciplines,” he said. “You can’t build knowledge without reading sufficiently rich and complex text.”

Rethinking Roles

It’s a big change—and often an unwelcome one—for teachers in subjects other than English to see themselves as part of a school’s literacy work, said Ms. Brown, the literacy-pilot supervisor.

“When we first started this, there was huge pushback,” she said. “We had teachers tell us, ‘If you make me teach reading, we’re done.’ But that changed when they realized that this is really about giving their students access to the content. Giving students the power to master knowledge means giving them the keys to understanding academic vocabulary and thinking in the disciplines.”

At International Community High School’s campus in the Bronx borough, teachers are just starting to tinker with using the guidelines to measure a text’s complexity more fully, and are keenly interested in the new ideas about how to escort students into the upper levels of a discipline’s thinking and writing. They’re interested in the techniques as a way to help them solve a persistent problem at their school: students who progress well in reading to a point and then plateau.

Because the school’s 375 students are recent immigrants, teachers here are used to finding ways to decode unfamiliar language and culturally based information that newcomers might find hard to grasp. They see parallels between their own work with English-language learners and the Shanahans’ ideas about how to guide students into higher-order concepts and language.

“We do a lot of these things every day,” said English/language arts teacher Jen Minnen.

Mr. Shanahan himself said that expecting 14-year-olds to grasp high-level material without discipline-specific strategies is tantamount to dropping them off unaccompanied in three different countries and expecting them to thrive. “That’s what we do every day in their schools,” he told the teachers. “We move them from the land of math to science to history with no guides.”

Teachers at International Community have those ideas in mind as they craft their daily lessons.

In her English/language arts classroom, Maryam Dilakian helps 11th and 12th graders build work-attack skills and access key themes in a story about slavery. Together, they break down words such as “demoralize” and “dehumanize.”

History teacher Elise DeBoard guides her 11th and 12th graders into a unit on America in the ’20s with exercises designed to make their upcoming textbook reading more accessible. They examine photos, looking for clues about life during that time, a practice she said would build “visual literacy,” an important skill in the humanities. They sort a dozen adjectives about the time period into groups, finding similarities and making connections between the words.

Down the hall, Stephanie Lane uses varied representations of key ideas to help her science students understand complex information about DNA. They spend time writing about and drawing the four nucleotides that make up genetic code, and they also cut out and connect multicolored paper shapes to represent how the nucleotide bases pair up in strands that form a double helix.

New Strategies

A science department meeting in the afternoon illustrates the changes in thinking about literacy that are taking shape here. The teachers have created their own assessment of students’ reading skills, an assessment Ms. Brown calls “groundbreaking” for the way it is specific to the discipline of science.

Focusing on a group of 20 students whose reading has plateaued, the teachers had asked them to read an abstract of an article from a science journal. The students each read the excerpt aloud and marked the parts they found easy or difficult.

Teachers interviewed them about their reading habits in and out of school and analyzed their responses to practice questions from the New York state regents’ science exam. At the meeting, the teachers discussed what they had learned.

Across the 20 assessments, the teachers saw patterns: Students were stumbling on acronyms and appositives. Their ease in reading aloud belied their lack of comprehension. All of that gets in the way of learning science, so the teachers will tackle those problems as they create lessons in the coming weeks.

Science teacher Mark Leffler told his colleagues that he noticed his students didn’t understand how the order of parts of a sentence in science can be critical. Pointing out differences in the way science, math, and English sentences work helped them understand, he said.

“We reviewed how in math A plus B equals B plus A, and in English, ‘I slowly walk to my friend’s house’ equals ‘I walk slowly to my friend’s house,’ ” he said. “But in science, ‘H2O’ does not equal ‘OH2.’ It’s the grammar of chemical compounds.”

Ms. Lane said she embraces the literacy work as a potent weapon in her fight to impart the knowledge her students need.“I want my kids to be able to open a primary document and be able to pull the meaning, read the graphs, ask questions about the procedures being done, the conclusions being drawn,” she said. “These are the literacy skills you need in science. And there is a lot of reading to get to the joy of it.”

Helping students dig into complicated ideas and technical language in each discipline has the “potential to make a huge difference” in how well they access knowledge, said Mary J. Schleppegrell, a linguist and professor of education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who works with teachers to “unpack” the meaning of dense academic text for students. But teachers must guard against the tendency to simplify the material, she said.

“Too often, teachers simplify rather than dive deeply into it,” she said. “On the secondary level, you can’t really make it simpler and still maintain the level of content. You have to amplify instruction around it.”

Emerging approaches to analyzing text complexity could force a broadening of the school curriculum that has too often been narrowed by a test-driven focus on math and English/language arts, said Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association who helped shape the common standards.

By taking into consideration the background knowledge a reader must bring to understand a text, the common standards’ three-part approach makes it all the more important for teachers to build students’ content knowledge in all subjects, Ms. Kapinus said.

“Teachers are going to have to pay attention to developing the underpinning concepts that kids need to read well and get engaged in informational text,” she said. “Where we brushed science and social studies aside in the early grades to focus on math and reading, we can no longer afford to do that. That’s a change in the whole focus of schooling.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teachers Seek Ways to Gauge Rigor of Texts


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