Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in
by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp is a book that describes how to identify the level of rigor in a text. Although they provide a single chapter on techniques for teaching rigorous texts and they intersperse a few examples of approaches throughout, this book is first and foremost to help teachers understand what makes a text complex. Reading
The authors discuss the three components of complex texts as identified in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS): quantitative measures, qualitative measures and reader factors. As a teacher, it is important to be able to identify when a text is rigorous. Some texts are deceptively rigorous or deceptively approachable. Winnie the Pooh, a young child classic, is rated by the Flesch-Kincaid Index as having a readability of grade 4.7. This book targets younger children. Conversely, I remember my kindergartener bringing home a book with simple sentences such as “Tim danced a waltz. Tim danced a fox trot. Tim danced a rumba.” My reader struggled with this book because he was not familiar with the names of the dances. The sentences were short and simple, but the vocabulary was meaningless and so he did not understand the story. Below is a graphic illustrating the three pieces of rigor.
Several important points are made throughout the book. First that students need to read material at a range of levels: independent reading to build vocabulary, fluency and reading habits; instructional reading to teach vocabulary and comprehension; easy frustration reading to teach strategies for approaching challenging material. If the material is too frustrating, however, the child will be turned off and glean nothing. When very difficult texts are presented, they should be presented in small morsels. Rereading is necessary for understanding complex material. If you spent an hour struggling to read it the first time, going back over it to read it a second or third time is unlikely to happen. If it takes five minutes to read it, you will have better luck. You can build to longer passages, but the start must be small with lots of guidance, questioning, and both peer and group discussions. Think alouds present a fantastic opportunity to model how to approach these difficult passages. They encourage recursive reading using previously taught skills and development of new ones.
Another important part of approaching complex material is annotation of reading material. Identifying confusing or unknown parts, a strategy utilized by Kelly Gallagher in his twenty questions and article of the week passages (see Deeper Reading, 2004), is an important comprehension monitoring step. From there you can teach concepts, vocabulary, strategies, etc. Alternatively you can present a purpose to the students. For example identify how Poe uses the concept of time to develop the story of “The Tell Tale Heart.” Students can highlight where time is referenced and then link those reference to the plot development. Annotation requires that students have texts that they can write in or alternative techniques such as highlighting tape, sticky note application, or old fashioned paper notes with pages and paragraphs identified. These strategies need to be taught- not once but over and over. Then they need to be reinforced, over and over.
One of the interesting pieces of information that the authors present is the significant reduction in the level of text difficulty of today’s textbooks as opposed to seventy-five years ago. After WWII the level of text complexity slowly declined. This accelerated in the eighties and nineties. I suspect one of the major reasons for this decline is that increasingly more students with disabilities were added to classrooms and expected to be taught and learn with their peers. At the same time, retention has been identified as a negative factor and graduation rates have expected to go up. Teaching moved to a lowest common denominator rather than a weed them out approach. Dealing with the new dynamic in the classroom requires new skills, more support and new strategies. This is the challenge of the modern teacher: how to best meet the diverse needs of students within her classroom. No one said the job was going to be easy.
In order to meet the demands of the CCSS, teachers need to increase the challenge of the reading material students are presented with. At the same time, they need to address the diverse needs of students in their classrooms. What may be challenging for some, will be too easy or impossibly difficult for others. Teachers are the critical link in making the puzzle work.