R.CCR.10 — that's the tenth (and final!) College/Career Readiness anchor standard within the Reading strand of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA/Literacy — reads as follows:
Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
All right, let's dive into this bad boy.
It's all about complex texts
Grade-appropriate text complexity is a linchpin of the CCSS, and I love that for two reasons.
First of all, students are expected to read grade-appropriate complex texts. It's imperative not to confuse this with students reading texts within their personal reading ability level; I think the CCSS leave plenty of room for choice reading and reading workshop models, but they also demand that we don't stop with kids solely reading texts of their choice or texts that align with their SRI score or their color or whatever. The reason for this is explained in Appendix A: though the reading demands of college/career texts have increased or remained constant over the last few decades, the reading demands placed on high school students during the same time period have lowered. The solution to this problem is ensuring that reading demands in PK-12 gradually “staircase” up into the demands of the college-career world.
In other words, even if Susan reads at a 3rd grade level, if she's in 7th grade she has frequent opportunities throughout the school year and across the content areas to read texts that are appropriately complex for the 7th grade.
I love it.
This means that, no matter what remedial programs Susan ends up in, no matter what “track” she ends up on, no matter what labels she acquires during her journey through public education, Susan is going to get instruction on reading texts that stretch even her peers reading at grade level. Though this may at times be frustrating for Susan, it will be infinitely less frustrating than jumping out of a high school wading pool into the shark tank of the career/college world. If the “staircase of complexity” (see Shift 3) is followed, Susan will enter the waters of post-secondary life with more than swimmies; she'll have years of shark-fighting experience.
End “life = shark tank” metaphor.
The other reason I appreciate the centrality of complex texts in the CCSS is that it emphasizes the power of the teacher. In the CCSS, we're essentially being told, “Preparing kids for the complex texts that the information age will throw at them is a high priority. Let's clear away a lot of nonsense standards so that you teachers have the time and space to devote to this task.” The task isn't easy, but if it was, would my school and my students need me to get it done?
Thankfully, the CCSS doesn't dictate how we're to accomplish the staircase of complexity. This leaves a lot of flexibility within which teachers can practice the entrepreneurship that should be central to our profession.
So how do I determine if a text is grade-appropriate?
Although there is a three-part “formula” that the CCSS uses to determine grade-appropriate text complexity (I've written about text complexity here), probably the most concrete way to get a feel for CCSS text complexity is by checking out Appendix B of the ELA/Literacy document. In Appendix B, you'll find lists of exemplar texts (both informational and literary) according to grade level and, for 6-12, informational texts are broken up into ELA, history/social studies, and math/science/technical subjects.
It's crucial to note that this is a list of exemplar texts; the CCSS does not dictate which texts must be read in which grade level (except in rare cases, such as the reading of documents foundational to the USA). Buyer beware: I've seen publishers who are attempting to capitalize on Appendix B by packaging the exemplar texts into grade-level sets and making them seem like the CCSS books for each grade level.
In the months and years to come, I'm sure there will be greater clarity and agreement on larger lists of grade-appropriate complex texts.
Balancing informational and literary texts
Another key aspect of R.CCR.10 is an equal emphasis on informational and literary texts. According to the Publisher's Criteria (a very helpful document for teachers and curriculum writers as well as publishers), grades 3-5 need to include equal measures of literary and and informational texts, whereas the 6-12 years should shift to substantially more literary nonfiction.
But what is literary nonfiction?
According to the same document, literary nonfiction includes “essays, speeches, opinion pieces, biographies, journalism, and historical, scientific, or other documents written for a broad audience” (p. 5; see also p. 57 of the main CCSS ELA/Literacy document). The Publisher's Criteria go on to give preference in the 6-12 years to literary nonfiction that is built on informational rather than narrative text structures (biographies, memoirs), and it's important to note that this shift is expected of ELA classrooms.
I see a ton of flexibility here on the part of teachers and curriculum writers, but I also see the makings of a considerably changed secondary ELA reading lists.
Mix one part student and one part complex text
Once you're armed with complex texts, it's time to get students reading and comprehending them independently. This is a perennial challenge for me: how do I avoid over-teaching and under-teaching the complex texts we read in class?
Please note: this is where R.CCR.10 leaves you! Methods are left up to teachers, so what I've written below is entirely my own musings on how to get R.CCR.10 done.
For my money, the key to enabling students to comprehend complex texts on their own is by gradually releasing them from guided practice to independent practice; I try to give them what Kelly Gallagher calls a deluxe, guided tour at the beginning and a budget tour at the end.
At the beginning of a complex text (whether it be the first few paragraphs of an article or the first few chapters of a novel), I seek to give a deluxe, guided tour. This means explicitly teaching key vocabulary, modeling my comprehension, explaining allusions, etc.
But there's got to come a point in each text where, in order to avoid enabling helplessness, I need to gradually release my students into independently grappling with the complex text in front of them. Some questions I still wrestle with as a teacher are:
- when should this transition occur?
- how should this transition be made?
- how do I hold students accountable for independently comprehending grade-appropriate complex texts?
If you've got answers to any of these questions, please comment!
Thanks, Dave. I’m a great proponent of Literary/Creative/Narrative nonfiction in the high school grades. Lee Gutkind defines literary NF as: “factually accurate prose about real people and events—(written) in a compelling, vivid manner.”
I have found that many students who are resistant to reading, and are not reading at grade level when it is mandatory or teacher chosen fiction and drama, read with unexpected skill and engagement when allowed independent choice of a book that is “real” as opposed to fiction.
Teens are by nature extreme and much of literary nonfiction deals with extreme issues, actions, and events. Washington Post investigative reporter Katherine Boo writes, “Grim subjects, destitute characters, complicated wrongs need narrative so people will read them and give half a damn.”
Students who have an emotional investment in the narrative will more likely take the time to check the dictionary, research further into a topic, and talk and write about what they have read.
Leslie W, Teacher Librarian, Toronto
Leslie, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment — I had not thought of the “edge” that literary nonfiction has for grabbing teens. It certainly does make sense that, in order to get through to readers, authors of literary nonfiction would need to create excellent writing.
I’m intrigued by your work with allowing students independent choice in reading literary nonfiction. In my classroom, I attempt to follow the 50/50 approach mentioned by Kelly Gallagher in some of his books; basically, I expect students to spend about 50 percent of their time reading choice books and 50 percent reading books that we read as a class.
What do you think about this?
Dave, I see many different classes using our CNF (creative nonfiction) collection – English, History, Social Sciences. Most often, grade 10 Academic English read a personal choice fiction and nonfiction for their independent study at end of term. Through the semester, however, they read teacher choice novel, play, essays and short stories.
The collection also appeals to grade 11 and 12 College level English students who must choose one title for their independent study – and it’s most often CNF for boys. Most popular is “Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, about child soldiering in Sierra Leone. They also like the books into movies, like “Accidental Billionaires” (Social Network), “Catch Me If You Can”, “Between a Rock and A Hard Place” (127 Hours), “Perfect Storm”.
More recently, I’ve had interest from a Social Science teacher who is planning to incorporate a personal choice CNF reading assignment into term work. This, as a result of the “issues” focus of CNF. Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent study of America’s working poor in her book: “Nickel and Dimed : on (not) getting by in America” is a great read for Social Sciences.
So, actually, we need to catch up with you as far as the ratio of personal to mandatory class reading.
What is the response of your students to the 50/50 choice you offer them?
Leslie W, Teacher Librarian
Leslie, as soon as I read your post I went and created a wishlist on DonorsChoose.org. Thanks so much for such specific and awesome commenting. I can totally see why your school is using the CNF collection so often; your passion is driving people to the great resources and stories!
My students enjoy the 50/50 split, but like your example makes clear, it’s important that I engage reluctant readers with high interest texts.
It sounds like a lot of excellent things are happening in your school; I’m intrigued by these independent study units. I’ve read about something like that in Jim Burke’s The Big Idea.
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