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UPDATE (April 9, 2014):  The blog below was post by Diane Ravitch, who was appointed to public office by both Presidents George H.W. Bush (From 1991 to 1993, Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander) and Bill Clinton (Ravitch was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley in 1997 and reappointed by him in 2001).  Secretary of Education, Richard Riley appointed her to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervised the National Assessment of Education Progress. __________________________________________________________________

 

Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offers a review of research asserting that it is important for students to read complex text in order to be successful in meeting college and career challenges. CCSS argues, “The research shows that while the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century, the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval. In order to address this gap, the CCSS emphasize increasing the complexity of texts students read as a key element in improving reading comprehension.”

The study in Appendix A evaluates six different computer programs that measure the quantitative components of text complexity:

ATOS by Renaissance Learning
Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) by Questar Assessment, Inc.
Flesch-Kincaid
The Lexile Framework for Reading by MetaMetrics
Reading Maturity by Pearson Education
SourceRater by Educational Testing Service
Easability Indicator by Coh-Metrix

The different qualitative dimensions include:

1. STRUCTURE – Texts of low complexity tend to have simple, well-marked, and conventional structures, whereas texts of high complexity tend to have complex, implicit, and (in literary texts) unconventional structures.

Translation:  CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that does not follow standard convention rules (i.e. text without an identifiable pattern).

2. LANGUAGE CONVENTIONALITY AND CLARITY – Text that rely on literal, clear, contemporary, and conversational language tend to be easier to read than texts that rely on figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic, or otherwise unfamiliar language (such as general academic and domain-specific vocabulary).

Translation:  CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that is unclear, misleading, old, unfamiliar, ironic, and figurative (text that doesn’t say what it means).

3. KNOWLEDGE DEMANDS – Texts that make few assumptions about the extent of readers’ life experiences and the depth of their cultural/literary and content/discipline knowledge are generally less complex than are texts that make many assumptions in one or more of those areas.

Translation:  CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text with which few people can identify in terms of life experience.

4. LEVELS OF MEANING (literary texts) OR PURPOSE (informational texts) – Literary texts with a single level of meaning tend to be easier to read than literary texts with multiple levels of meaning (such as satires, in which the author’s literal message is intentionally at odds with his or her underlying message). Similarly, informational texts with an explicitly stated purpose are generally easier to comprehend than informational texts with an implicit, hidden, or obscure purpose.

Translation:  CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that has multiple meanings with information that is implied, hidden, or obscure.

SUMMARY:  CCSS advocates utilizing text for educational purposes that follows no pattern, that is unclear and misleading, that few people can identify with, and that has multiple meanings.

REALLY?  This must go against every best practice strategy in existence! Perhaps this explains why politicians seem to be clueless.

In the quotation above, therefore, CCSS must be demonstrating the following skills:

“The research shows that while the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century . . . “

Purposely Mislead the Reader (PMR):  It has most likely stayed the same over the past half century.

” . . . the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval.”

Obscure Information Using Multiple Meanings (OIMM):  What type of complexity was actually analyzed in the research? From what study was this information taken?

Conclusions Based on Lack of Experience (CBLE):  It is obvious CCSS has very little to no experience in helping students become better at reading because they would never advocate for text that follows no pattern, that is unclear and misleading, that few people can identify with, and that has multiple meanings as a means for improving comprehension.

“In order to address this gap . . . “

Figurative Language Lacking Patternization (FLLP):  This must be figurative language because all educators know this is not actually happening. The inferred meaning is, “in order to steal public funding and confound future generations of America.” There is no pattern to support a gap actually exists, let alone that CCSS can bridge it.  (If truth be told, I made up the term ‘patternization’ as it applies to text complexity.  If CCSS advocates misleading, confusing, calling something something that it isn’t, and implying misinformation, I thought I’d give it a shot.)

“. . . increasing the complexity of texts students read as a key element in improving reading comprehension.”

Satiristic Assertion (SA):  I have to call this one satiristic assertion because it’s really funny, yet hysterically tragic.  Reading comprehension will not be increased by increasing the complexity of text in the manner proposed by CCSS.  (I made up Satiristic Assertion too; although, I don’t think CCSS gives bonus points for creativity.)

Reading comprehension is a skill; it is just like learning to throw a football, make a basket, or hit a baseball. Athletes become good at their sport because they consistently practice individual skills.

Recall the first time you learned to ride a bike, throw a ball, or swim. Imagine how, in the beginning, someone demonstrated these activities. Yet, you could only learn so much from watching someone else; eventually, you had to give it a try yourself. With repetition and time, you became proficient in these activities, and perhaps, you may have ultimately excelled at and enjoyed them.

Apply these activities to reading. In the beginning, reading is modeled and taught. But, students can only learn so much from observing others read. At some point, students need to read for themselves. If they practice, they will become proficient, and in the end, they can excel and even enjoy this skill.

In order for students to read, they must practice reading consistently (a minimum of several 20 minute intervals each day) using text that has a vocabulary they understand and a level of complexity they are cognitively able to manipulate. I advocate that students read material they connect with and enjoy, so they are motivated to read rather than turned off by it.  As time goes by and students demonstrate mastery of comprehension skills (finding the main idea; identifying supporting details; recognizing sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships; understanding the meaning of words; and making generalizations and conclusions) the complexity of text increases, as does vocabulary. I’m not against increasing text complexity, I am against increasing it in a manner aligned with the study produced by CCSS.   (Since the following are not the emphasis of my educational background as a secondary education instructor, excluded from this discussion are the components of language acquisition such as syntax, morphology, semantics, and phonetic structure, which are essential for educators at the primary level.)

As a side note, sequence is a difficult skill for students with learning disabilities to master since most neurologically-based academic deficits include a processing deficit in the area of short-term (working) memory.  Sequence is a skill that requires short-term memory; therefore, students with an academic deficit in the area of reading benefit from scaffolded instruction when practicing this skill.

From the perspective of an English teacher at the secondary level, I would identify text complexity, quantitatively, in terms of the conventions used to produce the text at sound level and word level (decoding), and at the paragraph level,  multi-paragraph level, single text level, and multi-text level (comprehension).  These steps apply to all types of literature, including fiction, non-fiction, and informational text.

1.  A simple sound would consist of one letter: | f |.

2. A complex sound increases in complexity based on the number of letters blended together:  | ph | is more complex than | f |.

3.  A simple word would be one syllable: cat.

4.  A complex word increases in complexity as it increases in syllables:  feline is a more complex word than cat.

5. A simple sentence is one that contains a subject and a verb, and it expresses a complete thought.

6. A compound sentence contains two independent clauses joined by a coordinator.

7. A complex sentence has an independent clause joined by one or more dependent clauses. A complex sentence always has a subordinator such as because, since, after, although, or when (and many others) or a relative pronoun such as that, who, or which.

8. A simple paragraph would consist of applying comprehension strategies exclusively to one paragraph.

9.  Multi-paragraph complexity would increase as the number of paragraphs increase.

10.  Simple text would consist of applying comprehension strategies to a text promoting a single point of view.

11.  Multi-text complexity would increase as the number of differing viewpoints, either within a single text or within multiple texts, increase.

An error I find that is commonly made in reading instruction is based on the lack of understanding behind how fluency should be used.  I have observed that mega-corporations producing reading materials often promote fluency when soliciting comprehension materials.  Fluency is a skill needed for students who are reading at the level of decoding.  When these students begin to put together sounds and to form words, fluency is important so students can hear the sounds put together to form a word.  At this level, they also need to read more fluently in order to process, or manipulate, the information they read.  Sounds become words, words become sentences, and sentences become paragraphs.

Yet there is a grey area between decoding and comprehension where fluency is no longer the objective, comprehension is.  No teacher would tell a student struggling with comprehension to, “read faster” (fluency).  It is at this point where students actually benefit from slowing down and interacting with text using strategies such as annotation and materials such as graphic organizers related to individual comprehension skills as listed above.

Once students get to this level, it is purely a matter of consistent practice and raising the level of text complexity (as I identified it quantitatively above) upon mastery of individual comprehension skills, while also increasing their vocabulary.  This is similar to how a judo player would advance from one level to the next, for example.  Of course, teachers will also have to deal with issues such as student motivation, attendance, the availability of appropriate materials, the number of students in a class, administrative decision-making, legislative errors, and etc.  Those issues are beyond the scope of this article.  It’s my intent to merely identify the components of solid reading instruction.

As you can clearly see, in contrast to CCSS, this follows a pattern.  As demonstrated in the publication, ‘Learning About Numbers With Patterns,’ best practice maintains that children learn better when they can identify patterns. Although this study cites an example related to mathematics, its example can be applied to any discipline. Students learn better when they can see patterns, connect patterns, and build upon patterns.  This is a complete negation of the educational information CCSS is soliciting to the public.

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