Friday, August 12, 2011

Text complexity and the Common Core Learning Standards

The Common Core standards, national standards and benchmarks for language arts and math were officially rolled out last June, almost a year ago. Then they were officially adopted (and renamed the Common Core Learning Standards) by New York State. Now they have been officially adopted by the NYCDOE, which with the Common Core Library has begun to put processes into place for applying them in schools. This year these standards will finally begin to have an impact on classroom practice, although many aspects including new tests won't be completely in place until next year. It will be interesting to see how the spirit of these standards evolves as they are fitted into the real world of teaching and school.

I first read the standards last summer, and have been thinking about them and reflecting on possible implications for my school and its library. It is tempting to say that there is "nothing new under the sun," and "what goes around comes around." However I don't think that this will be just another variation on a theme, or another raising of the bar. Certain aspects of the standards demand major changes from our schools and teachers. It will take time for the full impact of the changes to be felt in the classroom, but as the Common Core becomes part of educational practice changes will be felt by all involved, including students, teachers, and parents.

What has changed in the ELA (English Language Arts) standards can be explained as four "shifts" (This language was used at a conference I attended last week, it is also used in the Engage NY Common Core Video Series and in presentations from the Indiana Department of Education) 1) Emphasizing informational text 2) Literacy standards across the content areas 3)Emphasis on text complexity 4)The special place of argument.

Of these shifts, the emphases on informational text and on text complexity are the two changes that most effect reading and book choice. ("Argument" is mostly a writing focus, and "content areas" flows out of the emphasis on informational reading.) I expect these cause some immediate changes, some consternation, and unfortunately some over zealous application and misunderstanding. I am expecting teachers to want to know more about "text complexity," and I am worried that students may be dissuaded from reading what they want for pleasure.

Informational text is more challenging for the teacher as well as the students both because it usually demands some prior content knowledge of the reader and because the reader must attend more closely. More complex text is less "natural" and often harder to explain because longer and more complex sentences demand that the reader make connections and understand connecting words to fully understand the meaning. Some teachers, students, and families may feel uncomfortable with more assigned reading being in an academic rather than a colloquial style. Much written English, especially fiction, has gradually become more and more like spoken words. However the academic English that college freshmen need to understand has become if anything more complex and opaque. Academic language is almost foreign to most of our students and even many of our teachers.

So where do I go from here? I have been re-visiting the perennial issue of readability levels and text leveling. I find myself thinking about readability even as I have been reading for pleasure this summer. I will also continue reading as much current non-fiction as I can at the elementary level. As teachers wade into "complex" texts and figure out how to use more non-fiction in their classrooms I will try to be there with books to both fill needs and stir imaginations. I will also be there for my students, urging them to read more, read broadly, and yet read what they want. I want to "feed the need to read." I also want their teachers to find what they need to broaden their students' horizons.

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