I recently had the opportunity to attend the NYS Reading Association conference in Albany. As I scanned through the 100 break out session titles over the course of the two and a half days, of course, text complexity and close reading were hot topics across the board. The one that drew my attention was presented by a known author of elementary teacher resources and literacy consultant in schools across the country. The session was titled, “When Texts Get Complex: Assessing Comprehension, Crafting Goals, and Getting Students to the Next Level.”
After a paperwork mix up that kept me at the registration table longer than expected, I joined the session slightly in progress. As I joined the two-hour presentation, we explored the triangle of text complexity which we have all become familiar with lately, revisiting the intersection of quantitative and qualitative factors, along with reader and task considerations that all interact to inform what we have come to call “text complexity.” The presenter also shared a visual of the ELA CCLS that was new to me, the image of a ladder with standards 1 and 10 representing the anchoring uprights and standards 2-9 being the rungs of the ladder. Then, she made a statement that really struck me.
The statement was this: Students who are reading below grade level cannot possibly accomplish standards 2-9 at their expected grade level. Really??? This statement puzzled me because as a special educator and literacy specialist, I have spent much of my career not only believing, but promoting the idea that just because students may not be able to independently decode grade level texts does not mean that they are not capable of engaging in the deep, complex thinking and discussion around these texts along with their grade level peers when we provide them with the proper supports to overcome the decoding weaknesses. And I still believe this based on my own classroom teaching experiences of working with struggling readers. So after my initial dismay with this statement, I wondered, “What exactly is this presenter suggesting? There has to be more to this, right?”
So, the speaker, who shall remain nameless here, went on to explain that students practicing reading in texts written below grade level cannot accomplish the grade level standards because the texts they are reading are not written with sufficient complexity to stimulate the complex thinking skills written into the grade level Common Core Standards. Let’s consider an example from the fifth grade Reading Literature CCLS. Standard RL.5.3 states that fifth graders will compare two or more characters within a text, drawing on specific textual details of how the two characters interact. Now consider Johnny, a fifth grade struggling reader working through Frog and Toad. Johnny won’t be able to practice this important character skill with the level of rigor expected in the fifth grade standards in his instructional level text because the characters in this beginning chapter book are not developed in depth enough to elicit the sophisticated level of thinking expected at fifth grade. I think to myself, “Ok, that actually makes sense.” I am feeling less agitated now, at least for the moment.
Then the presenter suggested that we look at the standards for the grade level of text that child is currently reading (their instructional level) to guide our instruction. So for Johnny, we might look to second grade standards. “What???“ The agitation returns. “Are we not to expect fifth graders to engage in fifth grade comprehension skills?” After my initial outrage with this statement, I decided to think about this a little deeper. Let’s consider this. If we keep our struggling readers in instructional and independent level texts without challenging them, do they ever really have a chance of growing as thinkers or achieving Common Core expectations?
So now I am thinking about this speaker’s statement a little differently. After doing a bit more investigation and skimming through her blog, I have come to believe that she was speaking specifically about guided reading and did not intend that this approach be used as a replacement for grade level instruction, but instead paired with it as part of a balanced literacy approach. In fact, I noticed just such an argument articulated in her blog. Finding this calms my agitation. Unfortunately, that was not the way I originally heard the statement and I wonder how many others might have been misled, reminding me of how important it is to be critical consumers of information in our professional practice. More to my original point, however, is that if we know our struggling readers are not getting their hands on texts written with sufficient complexity to tackle grade level Core Standards during their independent or guided reading, what an urgent responsibility we are charged with as educators to be deliberate in our instructional planning for struggling students throughout the day! We must be diligent in ensuring that these students are presented with rich opportunities to engage in this rigorous reading and thinking with complex texts beyond their guided reading time.
So, what are your thoughts? How can we ensure that all kids have the opportunity to access grade level reading and thinking throughout the day without leaving behind guided reading? What strategies have you used successfully to support struggling students to access the content in these challenging texts and engage in rigorous thinking around them? I look forward to reading your responses!