Showing posts with label complex text. Show all posts
Showing posts with label complex text. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Fine Mess: Confusing Close Reading and Text Complexity

We just started close reading in our district last year. Our second graders were given text that was a grade level above their reading level. We were told to let them figure it out. They could not even read the first sentence it was too hard for their reading level. The reading coaches said they will learn to read it by letting them struggle with it. The kids would become so upset and began to hate reading because of they were so frustrated at how the district was making us implement close reading. For it to be of any value should the text not be on their instructional reading level?

            A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, “Five beers, please.”

            What do these two stories—the one about close reading and the one about Roman numerals—have in common? They turn on knowing what you’re talking about.

            If you don’t know that the Roman numeral for five is a V and that holding up two fingers looks like a V, you won’t get the joke. It won’t be funny.

            And, when district leadership doesn’t understand what close reading is or what it’s connection to complex text might be, the results aren’t funny either.

            One more story and I’ll provide some explanation that might help.

            A curriculum director invited me into her district. “I want you to make two presentations. One has to be on close reading, and do you have a suggestion for a second talk?”

            “Yes, I’d suggest that I talk about complex text.”

            “But that’s the same thing as close reading, isn’t it?”

            I’ve had that exchange several times over the past two years. I think for too many reading leaders, the two concepts—close reading and complex text—are confounded. I think it’s that confusion that’s leading to such bad decision-making.

            Let’s clarify both concepts… and see what that suggests for classroom practice.

            First, close reading. Close reading is an approach to literary interpretation—though it can be applied to at least some informational texts, too. It is an approach proposed for literary critics, and it is one widely taught in American universities. As such, it doesn’t focus on issues like word recognition or decoding, or even on basic reading comprehension, only on high-level interpretations or analyses of text.

            Originally, close reading was a push back against the idea that one had to study an author’s biography, or the historical period that a text came from, or even what the words meant at the time they were authored.

            To read a text closely one must only rely on the words in the text and their relationships to each other. They don’t turn to other sources. Close readers learn to notice metaphors or symbols, interesting juxtapositions of information, ambiguities, and the like (clues authors might have left behind to reveal the text meaning to those who read closely).

            The Common Core State Standards require that we teach students to be close readers—to not only grasp the literal and inferential meanings of a text, but to understand how an author’s word choices and structures convey higher-level meanings; how to figure out the subtler aspects of a text.

            As such, close reading only makes sense is if texts have deeper meanings. If there aren’t deeper meanings requiring such text analysis, then close reading would have no value. That means close reading requires certain kinds of text complexity.

            And what do the standards mean by text complexity? Like close reading, it isn’t explicitly defined in the standards, despite being central to them. A close reading of the standards and their appendices suggests at least two meanings of text complexity.

            One of those meanings is particularly relevant to close reading. We want our children to read high quality literary and informational texts. These texts should have depth. If we only read such texts carefully, but without conducting a close reading, we would likely end up with only a superficial understanding. Thus, in the past, if students read the “Three Bears,” we’d want them to be able to conduct a retelling of the story or to complete a story map with all the key plot details.

            A close reading of the Three Bears, however, might lead us to examine language that is used repeatedly (“someone’s been…), or why Papa and Mama Bears’ belongings are always inappropriate for Goldilocks, or the significance of the special relationship Goldilocks seems to have with Baby Bear’s possessions (she breaks his chair, eats his porridge, and falls asleep in his bed). The Three Bears would be appropriate for close reading because it includes words, structures, and literary devices that one can analyze to figure out what the story means and how it works.

            But I said there is a second definition of text complexity. That second definition has to do with language complexity—how well a reader could make sense of text features like vocabulary or grammar or how ideas are linked across the text. These features have more to do with how well an author’s language choices match up with the readers’ language proficiency. Thus, if the author uses words like ebony, porridge, clearing, latch, and peeped to tell the story, readers might get tripped up just following what was said if they don’t even know what those words mean.

            The first kind of complexity—the literary, symbolic or poetic complexity—is not measurable with Lexiles, Atos, or any of the other schemes for predicting how well readers will do with a text. The second kind, the linguistic complexity, can be measured or predicted by tools like Lexiles. We might say a text is fourth-grade level because texts with language like that are usually understood by fourth-graders; it is a kind of prediction. When you say the text was a grade level beyond your students, that’s what you are talking about.

            Now here is where people get tripped up. The standards require that we teach kids to read complex text closely—which means exposing them to texts that have symbolic or poetic complexity. Those texts could be easy to read (in terms of recognizing the words and knowing what they mean and being able to handle the sentences), but hard to interpret. The standards do encourage kids to struggle, but the struggle that is intended is a struggle to make sense of those more complex ideas and those more subtle aspects of how an author tells something.

            The standards also call for kids to learn to read text that has more sophisticated language. But that requires that we gradually ask kids to read a series of texts that stretches them while providing them with any necessary scaffolding that well help them to figure out what a text says. These supports may take the form of phonics guidance to help them decode particular words, the preteaching of vocabulary, or supports in making sense of the grammar of a sentence.

            Your coaches seem to be mixing these concepts up… So…

  1.       Make sure that close reading is focused on texts with the appropriate kinds of depth. These texts do not need to be “hard to read,” but, indeed, they might be confusing or frustrating to students. Don’t give into that frustration by just telling them your interpretation of the text but definitely engage them in a productive struggle with those big ideas.
  2.       Make sure that kids are getting opportunities to read texts that are at the specified reading levels set by your standards. These texts are likely to be somewhat hard to read—in terms of decoding, vocabulary meaning, grasping what the author is explicitly saying. As such, they might not be the best texts for close reading.
  3.       When you do ask kids to read texts that are hard to read, you need to be prepared to scaffold—to give students supports that will help them to make sense of the text; helping with decoding, preteaching vocabulary, breaking down sentences, connecting pronoun referents, making sense of organization, etc. A productive struggle here means helping kids with the difficult stuff so that they can learn to figure it out on their own.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
           
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

References 
Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, R, A., Bradley, B. A., & Stahl, S. A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, L. H., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1-19.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

On Climbing the Mountain: Four Ways Not to Deal with Complex Text

            Anyone who has taught reading—or really any course that requires a textbook—knows about kids who struggle to make sense of the text. Often they don’t even try. The text just looks hard and they’re ready to run.

          We’ve been talking a lot about complex text since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) burst on the scene. But most of that talk has focused on how to find texts that meet the complexity requirements of CCSS. Or how to ask questions that probe that complexity.

           I’d suggest thinking about complex text the same way that your students do. “It is just a big formidable SOB of a mountain and I might not be able to get to the top—so it isn’t even worth giving it a try. I didn’t want to learn about science anyway, or this darn story about talking animals. All that I know is that it makes no sense and I’m going to just look stupid if I try.”

           Of course, our own feelings as teachers complement the kids’ anxiety darn well. “I want this lesson to move along. I want to make sure that everyone understands what the Louisiana Purchase was, how Nick felt about Daisy, or how even Templeton contributed to what the animals were trying to do.”

            Accordingly, teachers, both good and bad, have come up with a set of routines for dealing with those challenging text situations. Routines well honed for disguising the fact that the kids can’t climb that mountain. It’s a vicious co-dependency. We don’t want the fluidity of the lesson to be interrupted, we want our kids to walk away with the required info, and we want to do it on a tight timeline. And no one should have to work too hard or be embarrassed by the failure; a tacit agreement not to teach as long as the kids don’t make us look bad. (And from their view: we agree not to make them look bad, by bothering them with our darn teaching).

            Not good for anyone.

            What routines have we developed that we need to avoid?

1.    If a text is challenging, find an easier one.

            I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably enough to say that, beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence that kids have to be taught with a particular level of text.

            Imagine trying to climb a mountain, and the teacher says, “That’s all well and good. I’ve got a hill over here for you to climb.” That doesn’t satisfy. In fact, it just makes sure that the kids don’t get to take on texts that are at their intellectual or developmental levels.

            What if we changed it up? If a mountain is high, we simply help them to climb. With appropriate supports and scaffolds, it can be done. The next time you think about moving kids to an easier text, think about what you could do to get them up the real mountain rather than the instead one.

2.    If a text is challenging, read it to them.

            I’m a big fan of reading to kids. I never taught a day of elementary school in which I didn’t read to them, and I read to my daughters until they were in 7th and 8th grades.

            However, there are books that are perfect for reading to kids, and there are books that they are supposed to read. If there is a social studies textbook, the kids are supposed to read that. If there is a core reading series, that’s on the kids too. Reading it to them, or doing the round robin thing—having other kids read it to them—will not get them up the mountain either.

           Oh, they’ll know more about the mountain if you read about it to them, but they won’t actually know because they won’t be able to get there.

            If you want to transfer information to the kids, then read it to them. If you want to teach them to get information independently, then teach them to read it.

3.    If a text is challenging, tell them what it says.

            This is very popular in the upper grade content classes. Teachers often tell me that they can explain the concepts more clearly than the textbook can. And, man are some of them good at ‘splainin’ and powerpointin’. But ultimately this suffers the same problem as reading the challenging texts to the kids. It just tells them what’s on the mountain without allowing them or enabling them to summit for themselves.

           Telling someone what a text says is just a good way to make the text not matter. Why read the text if you already know what it says? (Teachers who do this often tell me that the kids are “allowed” to read the texts. My response: “Good luck.”)

4.    If a text is challenging, ignore the problem.

           I see this one, too, though not as much as I used to: Teachers who assign a text and ask questions, calling on the hand-raisers, and moving on. They don’t usually manage to get anyone to the top of the mountain who wouldn’t have gotten there anyway and they leave a lot of kids at base camp—with neither any idea of how to rise or even sense that anyone cares that they get there.

           If you want kids to learn to read complex texts, you are going to have to let them try to read complex texts. Without reading those texts to them. Without telling them what they say. But, you do have to provide them with guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and any other help that will allow them purchase on the techniques that will allow them to make progress up the mountain.


           Let’s swear off our avoidance techniques. Let’s break the co-dependency. And let’s teach kids to read demanding text. It’s time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Six Pieces of Advice on Teaching with Complex Text

I’m confused. Our standards say that we have to teach kids to read at 820 Lexiles, but my third-graders aren’t even close to that. They are instructional at Level N on the Fountas & Pinnell gradient that my school uses. This makes no sense. How can I get my kids to such a high level in the time that we have?

            I receive few letters on this, but when visiting schools this confusion is often apparent. Teachers either ignore the level specifications of the standards or assume that teaching kids at "level N", as they have been doing, must be the best way to reach the standards levels. As one young teacher said to me, “The standards can’t mean that we are supposed to teach with harder books. These are hard enough.”

            But the standards actually do mean that teachers need to teach students to read harder texts than in the past. Just teaching level N books well won’t be sufficient. Kids’ reading is now being tested on texts at those higher levels--that’s part of the reason why reading scores dropped so much this year. If kids spend all their time reading easy texts, don’t be surprised if they struggle when immersed in more complicated language and ideas.

            Reading harder texts is a boon for kids who in the past would have been limited to Level N. Most 8-year-olds who are not permitted to venture beyond Level N are missing out on age-appropriate content and intellectual demands. However, it is not enough to just throw kids in harder text. The theory of instructional level teaching is that kids will largely figure out how to read better on their own, simply by practicing reading with texts that are pretty easy for them (think about it: instructional level means kids could read such a text once--without any teacher assistance--and comprehend it with 75-89% comprehension). The theory of teaching with harder texts, on the other hand, depends more on teaching; kids will need support to learn from more complex texts.

1.     Have kids read a lot within instruction. Students should be reading and writing during reading lessons—and during social studies, science, math, and health lessons, too. Too often the reading lesson time is just talked away, but kids need to read when there is a teacher there to monitor and support their reading. Perhaps set an arbitrary target: kids will read 50% of the time during reading lessons; or they will read at least 4 pages of mathematics or 8 pages of science per week. Lots of reading of lots of texts; every day; every week; every year.
2.     There is no instructional level. Despite claims by authorities in reading and special education, no procedure for matching texts to kids has been found to reliably provide any learning advantage. Kids can learn from harder books than we have taught with in the past—but that means more scaffolding. Don’t limit kids’ reading to texts at their “instructional levels” (~95-98% accuracy in fluency; 75-89% comprehension), or to any of the new levels now being advanced (90-95% accuracy).
3.     Vary the difficulty levels. Past claims about the instructional level made it sound like you would harm kids if you taught them in books that were “too easy” or “too hard” and so the notion was that all the productive reading work would be done at the instructional level. I suspect that learning to negotiate the complexities of text is probably more like learning to run faster or to swim farther. Athletes don’t do all of their training at one level of difficulty or intensity. They vary routines to build strength and stamina, and I think we should do the same with reading. The texts we use to teach reading should vary in difficulty and length—with kids reading some hard texts, followed by easier ones, followed by even more difficult ones. Text difficulty levels should go up and down, but the average difficulty over time should climb. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the level that your grade level is supposed to reach: if third-graders are supposed to learn to read 820 Lexiles, 820 is not the highest level text we should introduce.
4.     Be prepared to give more help when more help is needed. I’ve criticized our programs before for providing the greatest help when kids are asked to read easy texts and the least support when they take on the hardest ones. If I’m weightlifting with light weights, I don’t worry much about having a spotter. But if I ‘m trying to push myself to the limit with heavier weights or a greater number of reps than I’m used to, I want assistance. So why do kids work in small groups with a teacher when reading relatively easy texts and we save our harder texts (like the science book) for whole class instruction?
5.     Try to anticipate why a text will trip kids up and then question them watchfully. What do I mean by watchfully? Question them in ways that will reveal whether they figured out what you thought was complex. I know you already ask questions about the overall meaning of the story or article, but I’m suggesting even closer questioning than that. For instance, if you think a sentence is complicated, ask a question that depends on making sense of that sentence. If you are concerned that kids will miss a confusing cohesive link or an implied causal connection or a subtle sarcastic tone, then probe those things. If they are tripped up, then take them back to the text to figure out how it works.
6.     Require rereading. The more challenging a text is, the more it has to be reread. Reading it once (or twice) to figure it out, and then reading it again without so much support can really improve one’s reading ability. Yes, it takes extra time, but time that pays learning dividends. Such rereading does not need to be done immediately. It is okay to go back to a selection that one read last week or last month (though the longer the interval, the greater amount of teacher support that will likely be required on a reread).


You are, indeed, supposed to teach kids in harder texts than you have been teaching them. Keep these six guidelines in mind and you'll do a better job of that.