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On Common Core Text Complexity, the Triangle of Life, and the Freakout

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Creepy smiling kid + triangle of life

My argument here is simple: you, the teacher, have control over text complexity for your kids.

I'm definitely not saying all teachers have the same amount of control. Some teachers get to pick virtually every text their students read; others allow their students to pick nearly every text they read; and still others have all of their course texts decided upon by people outside of their classroom.

I'm saying that in any of these situations — even that last one, in which no control seems apparent — you've got some power.

Let's get to it.

The Common Core defines text complexity using the triangle of life

The triangle of life is this thing:


This is the triangle of life. Don't refer to it as that to other people because they won't know what you're saying.

(For those of you who haven't seen this thing before, check out the Common Core's Appendix A, page 4.)

Remember last post when I pointed out that most Common Core text complexity critics (including this New Republic article's author) fail to comprehend text complexity as it's laid out by the Common Core? The triangle above explains why. Please keep reading if you're not clear on why that is — this is critically important because it's such a simple way to right the misinformation that's fueling much of the Common Core freak out.

Quantitative measures = one (!!!!) shard of the triangle

According to Common Core Appendix A, quantitative measures are:

those aspects of text complexity, such as word length or [word] frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion, that are difficult if not impossible for a human reader to evaluate efficiently, especially in long texts, and are thus today typically measured by computer software.

Now, if you were horribly inept at life and intent on creating an absurd, nonsensical reading curriculum, you would use only quantitative measures to determine which texts were appropriate for which grades. Below is an infographic created for the above linked, sensationalistically misleading New Republic article — this should give you an immediate sense of why quantitative measures cannot (and do not, in any school I've ever visited or heard of) stand alone.

I work in a district that uses SRI testing and Lexile levels — not exclusively, Mr. New Republic author, but as part of our reading instruction/intervention/assessment strategy — and while these tools are useful in helping kids and teachers get one part of the text complexity picture, neither my students nor I am foolish enough to believe they measure all things.

Thankfully, the Common Core authors were not this foolish, either.

Qualitative measures = job security for humans

From Common Core Appendix A, p. 4:

[Quantitative measures are] those aspects of text complexity best measured or only measurable by an attentive human reader, such as levels of meaning or [levels of] purpose; structure; language conventionality and [language] clarity; and knowledge demands.

This is why the New Republic article is misleading — everyone, including the authors of the Common Core, knows that The Sun Also Rises is more complex than Charlotte's Web. There's a difference between trying to enter the world of a protagonist emasculated by war and the world of a great pig.

So when people come to you freaking out about this, just tell them to take a deep breath; the authors of the Common Core are not mindless simpletons, nor are they maniacal corporate overlords. I'm sure their motives, like those of every single human on the planet, were not always pure when they wrote the standards, but I don't gain much by assuming that their motives were as void of light as a black hole. (Thankfully physics teachers don't read this blog because I'm probably off on that analogy.)

If I may just wax tangential for a moment more, here's what's so important about resisting the Common Core freakout: there are so many critical, freak-out-worthy problems in the world right now — the Common Core is not one of them! I mean, if I'm going to pick a hill to die on in education today, there are lots of things higher on my list than a list of literacy college- and career-readiness targets.

Seriously. The Common Core is not a worthy hill to die on! Fight something else!

*Deep breathing. Deep breathing.*

If I may return to this post's actual topic, there are now plenty of resources for analyzing qualitative text complexity. Jim Burke's Common Core Companion contains tools in its appendix area, and AchievetheCore.org has free, downloadable rubrics (click Download All) for analyzing qualitative text complexity for both informational and literary texts.

Reader & Task considerations = teacher power

Finally, here's how the Appendix defines the third shard of the triangle of life:

While the prior two elements of the model focus on the inherent complexity of text, variables specific to particular readers (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and to particular tasks (such as purpose and the complexity of the task assigned and [complexity of] the questions posed) must also be considered when determining whether a text is appropriate for a given student. Such assessments are best made by teachers employing their professional judgment, experience, and knowledge of their students and the subject.

Dear, dear members of this community, this paragraph is exactly why we must continue to insist that people not freak out about the Common Core. Not freaking out starts with owning the standards–we must become the most knowledgeable people in our buildings about what these things say.

And what is the final word the Common Core authors give when explaining text complexity? That text complexity ultimately varies by each individual reader, and that the best people in a school to make determinations of text complexity (and modifications appropriate for any given student or class) are the teachers who teach the kids. (<– Click here to tweet that.)

There are two sub-points I'd like to make here.

Text complexity decreases as motivation increases

This is why so many students cannot handle the text demands of college and a career — they are suddenly faced with things that are complex by quantitative and qualitative measures, and then, to top it off, their professors and bosses offer little more than “pass the class” or “keep your job” as motivations for doing the thinking-intensive reading required by the text.

Wise teachers, concerned about this problem in their students' futures, will think long and hard about how to not only use simple hooking strategies for motivating kids to dive into a text, but also how to teach kids the much greater, more mysterious skill of motivating themselves. I think this is what David Conley is referring to when he writes about “owning” one's education in his Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know. This is like the holy grail of education; it's exactly what kids who smilingly admit to never reading a teacher-assigned text are missing.

How do we do that? I'm not positive, but I, like many teachers, have had some successes. Part of it lies in helping kids develop a vision of long-term flourishing in their own lives; another part lies in showing them, in our classes, that they can conquer the quantitative, qualitative, and personal complexity obstacles a complex text presents them with.

This is why it's worth assigning kids both shorter and longer, whole-class, complex texts. This is why we have to care enough about kids to limit (or completely eliminate) their choice when it comes to a fair proportion of the texts they read in our classes. I tell my boys who love reading soldier books that I want them to become Navy SEALS of life — this means going through some texts that may make them want to “ring the bell” and quit (during SEAL tryouts, trainees are free to ring a bell, lay down their helmet, and quit at any time), it also means great reward to those who don't ring the bell.

I'm not talking about chucking teacher-chosen texts at kids to make them grittier, nor am I advocating against helping students create a recreational reading life or a love of reading. We must teach our kids to build a reading life! We must develop in them a love for pleasure reading! But we cannot stop there. We can't. We owe our kids more.

I want my own children (and therefore my students) to be confident in their ability to pwn texts that are initially boring to them.

Text complexity decreases as the assigned during- or after-reading task's complexity decreases

This is why the article of the week assignment (Kelly Gallagher started the AoW idea, by the way), though it offers my 9th grade students articles from some of the most well-known newspapers in the world, is not overly complex even for my most struggling readers. To succeed on the typical AoW, kids need to annotate the piece (I teach them to do so in a purposeful manner that makes the after-reading writing quicker) and either write an open-ended response to it (I include prompts to aid in this) or a They Say/I Say two-paragraph response (scaffolded with Graff/Birkenstein's sentence templates).

Similarly, when my students are reading something as detached from their suburban-rural, 21st century experience as Achebe's Things Fall Apart or Martel's Life of Pi, I decrease the complexity by accompanying a majority of reading assignments with simple tasks like Kelly Gallagher's “20 Questions” assignment. This achieves multiple other goals in my reading instruction (e.g., I know what kids need help with the next day; a greater percentage of kids actually read the assigned pages; kids practice asking specific, “On page 20 Achebe writes ______ and it confused me because ______” kind of questions), and for the sake of our current discussion, it also decreases the complexity of the text to a level more appropriate for my kids.

Knowledge seriously IS power

So much of the Common Core freakout stems from teachers (And politicians. And administrators. And parents. And Glenn Beck.) not reading the standards in their entirety with the goals of figuring out how to make them work right now (which means, by the way, that we'll have to reduce them). These standards are an invitation for us to think about where our classes are aiming–what are our ultimate goals in teaching our kids to be literate?–and an opportunity for us all to discuss how to get our kids there.

Dear readers, use the triangle of life to regain control of text complexity in your classroom. If needed, share this article with your administrators or department heads — especially emphasize to them that the standards themselves explain that reader and task considerations are best made by a kid's teacher.



5 Responses to On Common Core Text Complexity, the Triangle of Life, and the Freakout

  1. Jonetta July 3, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Dave, as a member of the teaching profession in Oklahoma who is quite disillusioned with her state legislature, this post is like a huge amen from the choir. No matter how long I talked about the power of the Core for my students, the political entities of my state refused to actually “close read” the standards themselves. Thank you for confirming what I know to be true!

    • davestuartjr August 3, 2014 at 9:47 am #

      Jonetta, please keep fighting the good fight. The Common Core still provide the best path forward for OK kids (in terms of literacy, at least; I’m no expert on the math). I’m guessing your edu-policy types will pull a Florida and end up with little more than a rebranded Common Core. Perhaps it will even be better than the Common Core — a bit more focused, maybe.

      I remain optimistic that the CCSS can still be a step forward; this optimism is challenged most when I encounter people who are adamantly against a document they’ve never taken the time to read.

      I’m with you, Jonetta.

  2. Giana July 8, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

    Hi Dave,

    I am wondering how you foster a love of reading in your students? I totally get text complexity and agree with your post, but I just read Penny Kittle’s “Book Love,” and I am struggling to mesh what you say in your post about eliminating student choice and the ideas that Kittle brings up in her book.


    • davestuartjr August 3, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Giana,

      Such a good question, and one I’ve grappled with extensively over the past couple of years (Penny has been a repeated guest of our district, so this is a topic of conversation we have regularly). I plan to write more on this in the year to come, and I recommend you follow Erica Beaton’s post series (click for link) as it touches on these same themes.

      With all that said, here’s the simple answer to your question: choice reading is a part of the English course I teach. From Penny’s book, I rely on book talks, a growing classroom library, reading ladders, and conferring with students.

      On a day-to-day basis, I give kids 10-15 minutes of choice reading time — this will have to be closer to 10 minutes this coming school year, as we’re entering into a 58-minute period schedule. This time includes a book talk (from me or a student) and me conferring with a few kids about their reading.

      Basically, I view developing a love of reading as a goal English teachers should have, but I don’t view it as a panacea for the college/career readiness gap experienced by so many of our students when they graduate from high school. Choice reading and love for reading are one part of a secondary ELA teacher’s strategy for helping their students flourish in the long-term (click for link) — but they shouldn’t be the only part because kids are too close to college/career settings where choice will not be provided and the skill of engaging with teacher- or employer-chosen texts will be important.

      Let me say that last part again — we need to think about how we’re helping (high school students especially) develop the skill of engaging with texts they don’t choose, and doing so independently. I’m not advocating for chucking hard things at kids just because they’re hard, nor do I believe in ignoring the needs of high school students who are non-readers; instead, I’m advocating that we do all in our power to help kids prepare for what’s coming so they can flourish.

      I’ll invite Penny to comment on this thread — she is wicked smart.

      Thanks again Giana for being such a thoughtful, earnest member of this community.

      • Giana August 5, 2014 at 1:19 am #

        Wow, thanks for your thoughtful response, Dave!
        I read a few of Erica’s posts, and I am excited to read more. Looks like a great resource:)

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