Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Complexity in ELA Common Core Standards

I've been in curriculum roles for close to a decade. I was raised professionally in a state that embraced state standards in the late 90's. I read the Common Core Standards; I understood them. As well as I thought I knew the standards, Dr. Tim Shanahan spoke and transformed my understanding of the ELA standards. As you read my post, you may be surprised at what was new learning to me. Even so, it may be helpful to see what this social studies teacher took away from the day on "Really Terrific Instruction in English Language Arts" (RTI is a big topic here in Iowa :-).

#1 - Text Complexity is where it is at! Standard 10 in the Common Core is the standard that makes all of the rest of the standards work at high levels. It should be present, along with standard 1 on making meaning from text, throughout all instruction. It won't help a student be college and career ready if they only understand main idea of texts that are grade levels below them. Concentrating on easier texts, like below grade level text books or abridged versions of classics, miss much of the vocabulary and deeper levels of topical understanding. They can also miss the original author's word choice, text structure and true intent. There are reasons to use easier level texts as a scaffolded approach to understanding more complex text. That leads us to the next point.

#2 - Learning to read is like lifting weights; you need to challenge yourself with really hard reading, and balance it with more reps at lighter weights. Students need to read at a level that they can handle independently, but this shouldn't be the place they stay. Challenge students with text; support them as they struggle to make meaning of complex passages (see appendix B of the Common Core Standards for a list of sample texts). According to Dr. Shanahan, we've done a disservice to our students by "dumbing down" the reading selections to an adapted versions and cliff note versions of texts. It's a good idea to bring in apprentice texts to build background knowledge, but use it to make the harder text more accessible not to replace the harder text altogether.

! Read more on Shanahan's website about what this means for instructional levels.

#3 - Item Analysis of a standardized assessment should be around the text complexity of the passages students struggled with instead of the skill, as a first look. More than likely, students struggled understanding the text because of it's level of complexity. It's not an author's craft problem or vocabulary problem or text structure problem. It starts with the complexity of the text. If they missed questions around one idea on easier texts as well, then there may be a skill deficit, but start with the look at the complexity of the passages.

#4 - The standards were written from the top down. Looking at the reading expectations for college and in careers, the authors of the Common Core created standards for high school graduates and then back mapped it to what would then be necessary in kindergarten. This is important to understand when looking at the document as a whole. In addition, the progressions that are part of the structure of the standards can help teachers differentiate instruction to get students to grade level expectations and consider next steps for each child's learning.
"I keep looking and I keep finding studies that suggest that kids can learn from text written at very different levels" Dr. Tim Shanahan's blog post August 2011.

I know the conversation about text complexity is not new. I was in the right place at the right time to have the conversation make new meaning for me. I see the importance in making complex text physically available and cognitively accessible to students. If I have the opportunity to learn from Dr. Tim Shanahan again, I will definitely take advantage of it.

Additional Resources:
ASCD published an article in April 2012 about the reason for the focus on text complexity in the Common Core.
New York has a resource that shows 6 shifts in the Common Core Standards that may be helpful.


  1. Very thoughtful post Jen. Standard 10 is a biggie in ELA. In some ways, it reminds me of the Mathematical Practices standards, only in that you need to consider both when forming and delivering instruction around all of the other standards. Let me ask you this...how do you think the idea of cognitive complexity, like Bloom's or Webb's DOK, fits with the idea of text complexity?

  2. Text complexity lends itself to bigger concepts, but levels of thinking is still dependent upon how the teacher engages the student with the text. I could give 5th graders War and Peace and ask them to just highlight words they don't know. This next statement will be a shocker: it comes back to the quality and depth of instruction :-) After this training, my thinking immediately went to PD around making text cognitively accessible for all students. I have to support teachers more in explicitly teaching comprehension and literary analysis, not just assigning it. One resource shared at the training that I should have included in my post is on the Close Reading strategy. You can google to find variations of it, but Shanahan referenced Fisher and Frey's work most. (http://www.fisherandfrey.com/?page_id=20)