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Text Complexity and Other Not-So-Simple Things

Ever since that morning I spent in a basement in New York's Chelsea neighborhood a few weeks ago, I can't get text complexity off my mind. Nor can I shake the image of the opening slide in a PowerPoint presentation about "disciplinary literacy": a curvaceous woman in leather and high boots, carrying a whip.

Contrary to what you might think, I did not make that up to get your attention. It really happened. I was hanging out with teachers from a high school in the Bronx at a professional-development day that was part of a city pilot on secondary literacy.

The pilot was prompted by New York's adoption of the common standards, which harp heavily on the need for students to be much stronger at grappling with complicated informational and literary texts, and the need for teachers to learn "disciplinary literacy" strategies to help students decode the challenging grammar, vocabulary, writing, and ways of thinking specific to each subject.

In other words: It's not enough to teach kids how to "read hard stuff." You have to show them how reading hard stuff in AP Literature is different than reading hard stuff in biology, European history, or trigonometry.

The gal in leather was a joke, actually; a whimsical way of entering the presentation on strategies for reading in the disciplines. Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan, a husband-wife team of reading experts from the University of Illinois-Chicago, started their PowerPoint with that image, asking, "What is disciplinary literacy?" It got a chuckle out of the teachers, but then they moved on to the serious stuff of answering the question. They detailed the multiple ways that reading requires subject-specific strategies, arguing that in order to read well in all the disciplines, students need to understand not only how those experts write, but how they build knowledge.

The text-complexity work plunged the teachers into using a new—and still evolving—rubric to evaluate five aspects of difficulty in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It wasn't as simple as running the text through a computer analysis attuned to word length, sentence length, and word familiarity. This analysis involved thorny discussions about the book's structure, plot, syntax, content, and the background knowledge students might need to really understand it. And it became clear that some aspects of the novel are far more complex than others, making a single numerical rating seem too simplistic.

I keep thinking about those teachers. They were far from mastering this stuff, but they were deep in it, thrashing around and forcing new kinds of thinking. Watching them, I kept thinking about how my high school years might have been different if my teachers had been wrestling with those kinds of things, and how my college years might have been deeper as a result. I guess time will tell if these areas of focus yield a shift of ground in literacy, or whether they were just a passing idea du jour. But until we get that clarity, there is a lot to watch and contemplate.

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