Text Complexity, Reading, and The Real Answers

The story is “Slower Than the Rest” (pdf of the text here); the author, Cynthia Rylant, who writes deceptively simple sentences such as

Leo was the first one to spot the turtle, so he was the one to keep it…

…thereby foreshadowing, in one elegant swipe, the entirety of this story of a disabled boy struggling in school. It’s the story I use regularly to test my kids’ command of analyzing narrative; Rylant’s writing is sparse enough grammatically to not lose my readers who are below grade level, but richly nuanced in theme, character development, and voice.

This is not, sadly, what the United States is now defining as “complex text,” despite Rylant’s obvious and demonstrable complexity. The Common Core and Lexile seem to have a very cozy quantitative understanding along those lines, going so far as to align and re-align their sample texts to each other’s academic visions–versus, say, peer-reviewed research.

Despite the Core’s assertions to the contrary, I find no pragmatic documentation of an equally friendly relationship with the work of the mother of defining text complexity, Jeanne Chall— who also warned consistently against the overly narrow use of metrics such as Lexile.  E.D. Hirsch has a clear and lovely piece summarizing the dangers of the Core’s approach here.

But I digress. Or perhaps I don’t. Because sitting in this Starbucks, grading tests before I go home to prep for our New Year’s celebrations, I find the real answer as to whether “Slower Than the Rest” is complex: that is, adds value to my students’ knowledge, via an extension of their own experiences using critical thought. 

This answer is from Maurice, student with special needs. He waits for me before homeroom, and makes sure I am listening to him in class by reaching out and tapping my shoulder gently.

Identify a type of conflict, using details from the story, I ask Maurice.

It’s “person versus self,”  Maurice writes. “Leo (the main character) is slower than the rest. so was I. but I talked to the teacher and she whent slower and I caht up. so I am noe able to stay ‘ahead.'”

“The psychological difficulty of a text is determined less by its computer-measurable syntactical features than by the reader’s relevant prior knowledge,” Hirsch writes.

Happy New Year, everyone.







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