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Selecting Complex Text (Pt. 1)

by UnboundEd

By Sierah Tyson, UnboundEd ELA Specialist, and former ELA Teacher

I love seeing the books students are reading because the texts teachers choose are central to preparing students to meet the standards. Since the shifts and standards were introduced, many ELA teachers and instructional coaches have found introducing students to complex text challenging at both the curricular and instructional levels.

The shift in ELA requires that students practice with complex text and its academic language. The standards also call for students to be able to read and comprehend complex texts independently and proficiently at the complexity band specified for their grade. (The complexity bands move students at each grade toward readiness for college and career.)

Along my journey, I’ve met with teachers and asked them about their concerns related to selecting a complex text. Here are some of the questions I’ve heard frequently from teachers:

  1. “Can my students handle these complex texts?”
  2. “Can I select this book I read when I was a student?”
  3. “What is the Lexile, and is it enough to determine the complexity?”

All of these questions are valid and pushed me back to the shifts and standards to search for answers. Much like anything else I’ve learned, learning what texts to search for and how to teach them took practice. Here are a few answers I’ve found along the way.

1. Can my students handle these complex texts?
Of course, they can! But their understanding starts with us. Complex texts provide students with new language, knowledge, and “modes of thought.” The shift prepares students for the demands of college, career, and life. As teachers we need to help students engage with and navigate through the text—and work through any initial frustration—by providing the supports and scaffolds they need. In other words, we need to give students initial support so they can move toward the independence the standards call for. Here are some scaffolds I’ve found helpful when it comes to tackling complex texts:

  • Practicing with fluency (how smoothly one reads with speed, accuracy, and expression) will help students build comprehension so they are more ready to analyze the nuances of the text.
  • Familiarizing students with the text’s language and vocabulary ease the navigation of the text so they aren’t wrestling with the meaning of words as they read.
  • Providing exposure to the same topic using different Lexile levels helps fill knowledge gaps through the repetition of concepts and vocabulary.
  • Intentionally presenting texts and topics that build on each other helps build the knowledge students need to understand complex texts.

2. Can I read this book I read when I was a student?
Reading the books that we read when we were in school can be nostalgic and bring lots of joy. But the texts we select should be less about nostalgia and more about the demands of the shifts, standards and student needs. If you consider why you are selecting particular texts, you can both instill a love for reading and build knowledge, vocabulary, and language. Consider these questions before you select a text: Does this text fall in the Lexile grade bands that my students need to master? Does this text have complexity in meaning, language, structure, and language? Will this text expand my students’ knowledge of the world and words? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then the book is probably worth instructional time, and it’s going to be compatible with the demands of the standards.

3. What is the Lexile, and is it enough to determine the complexity?
The Lexile is a quantitative measure produced by examining word frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion. Lexile alone, however, shouldn’t determine text complexity. In addition to using the Lexile, we have to also consider the qualitative features and the reader-task variables. All three factors will give us a more accurate depiction of the text’s complexity and help us make informed decisions when selecting a text for instruction. The qualitative features require us to do a close examination of the text’s language, structure, meaning, and knowledge demands. Check out the Text Complexity Qualitative Features Rubric for both Informational Text and Literature for more details! The Quantitative Tools to Measure Text Complexity can be found in the same place.

We also need to consider our students and provide them with texts and standards-based tasks that foster learning. Imagine if a group of neurosurgeons and lawyers were asked to read a medical periodical. The periodical would be more complex for the lawyers because of their limited experience with the vocabulary, concepts, text features, and knowledge demands of the medical text. In the same way, students’ fluency, comprehension, and meaning-making will depend on their familiarity with the text. By knowing our students’ interests, experiences and worldview, we can provide them with the right scaffolds to access the complex text. Finally, consider whether the text can withstand the task demands of high standards. If the complexity doesn’t match the task, it can feel like trying to squeeze blood from a stone; no matter how hard we try it is not going to move students forward. Together these factors will guide us to making an informed choice for our readers.

What complex texts have you selected for your class? How do you support your students with accessing complex text? What are some of your questions or concerns? Let’s continue the conversation using #knowmoredobetter and follow me, @EducationNomad on Twitter and @TheEducationNomad on Instagram, for updates on what I’m seeing throughout my travels.