By Lynn Newmyer
In my job as a literacy instructional coach and intervention teacher, this statement from the CCSS literacy standards frequently comes up in my coaching conversations and lesson planning: “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”
My teacher colleagues question this statement by wondering how they can bring complexity into their lessons with students who find literacy difficult, especially because they are not yet reading grade level text. My answer is always the same: how can we NOT bring complexity into our lessons especially with our students who at this time find grade level reading out of their reach? Without the complexity, we create gaps that are more serious; deeper comprehension, rich vocabulary that builds background and content knowledge and the pure joy of losing yourself in a story or text, which all add to creating life-long readers.
This last month I have been problem-solving with a teacher colleague, Christine, about a third grade group of students that have been puzzling. These students are almost reading at grade level with a basic understanding of narrative and informational texts. The students can orally share what they know and understand but have difficulty organizing their thoughts in writing. What is imperative to include in our plans if these students are to reach their full literate potential?
Complexity of course! Complexity, however, is not the same as difficulty. Dr. Linda Dorn from the Center for Literacy at the University of Little Rock succinctly shared in a recent presentation why they are not. “Difficulty relates to the amount of work required to perform a task. Complexity relates to the degree of interconnected concepts, relationships, structures or patterns within a task.” So our question developed into this: how could we include complexity in ways that move students’ processing forward while keeping it easy to learn?
Choosing Engaging and Complex Texts
To prepare the students to move out of leveled reading texts into trade books and picture books with more opportunity for complexity, we knew that we would have to build their background knowledge by engaging them in a read aloud that would become a mentor text for how to do deeper thinking. We looked for professional resources that would give us a framework for analyzing complexity in picture books. One particularly helpful one was an article in The Reading Teacher, “Complexity in Picture Books” by Sierschynski, Louie & Pughe. Their framework uses the CCSS Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity, which includes levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity and knowledge demands. Also included are consideration of the textual-visual elements and guiding questions for further analysis. A list of literary texts in the article gave us wonderful suggestions that we used as our mentor texts.
Encouraging Collaborative Discussions
Students would also need to learn how to have conversations to negotiate text that is more complex where the meaning is nuanced and not obvious. Although we had chosen picture books, the pictures added another layer beyond the words. The interactive read aloud we chose, The Fox by Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks has an open ending, which leaves the reader wondering what really did happen next. Conversation exploded and Christine had to assist students on how to take their talk and work together to build deeper meaning using evidence from the text. One of the students in the group was so concerned about the ending that she spend the whole weekend writing a new one that she brought to school to share with her group. The students were quite impressed as she described her process of writing, as “pens and paper were everywhere!”
We relied on other professional resources including Dorn & Soffos’ Teaching for Deep Comprehension and Interventions that Work! Their works helped us to set structures in place for our group and ways to engage students in productive conversation. Of course, we re-visited Johnston’s Choice Words and Opening Minds. We knew about Johnston’s research on dialogic classrooms and the effect on comprehension and student engagement.
The story of Christine’s group is still unfolding. The ending is open. This week they will be starting to read a new book, Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne, in a small guided group. She gave them a sneak peek by sharing the cover and the title page of a floating red hat that casts a shadow. Their faces shone with excitement as they started debating what it might mean. One student, a boy, exclaimed that he could not wait until Monday, so she had better lock her door, as he was going to sneak in and steal that book so he could read it. And, this is from a student who hated to read last year! Just maybe we are on to something!
Lynn Newmyer is a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader and District Literacy Instructional Coach for the Walled Lake Consolidated School district in Michigan. This is Lynn’s 43rd year in education. and is an avid collector of picture books. Follow her on Twitter @LynnRdgtch.