The international reading association (IRA) provides a publication geared toward teachers called Engaging the Adolescent Learner. In a recent publication, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey tackle text complexity and close readings from the perspective of classroom application.
Given the goal set out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to focus on literacy instruction across content domains, teachers face the challenge of selecting and effectively incorporating informational texts into their classrooms.
Although there are several readability measures available for teachers to use, these rely primarily on sentence length and word choice and rarely lead to adequate text selection when used in isolation (Fisher & Frey, 2012). Although they suggest that readability measures should be used in conjunction with other measures for text selection, research supporting readability measures may reflect a small subset of texts that are particularly well written. Fisher, Frey, and Lapp (2012) also noted that readability measures are often criticized for their potential misuse by publishers. For instance, if a publisher manipulates an existing text by removing words or phrases, this may lower the readability score suggesting that the text should now be easier to read. However, this manipulation of the text may actually make it more difficult to read because it lacks cohesion. This creates an additional challenge for teachers who want to select appropriate informational texts based on readability scores.
Moreover, our lab recently conducted a study examining the effects of lowering Lexile (from 1st year college to 8th grade) of four informational texts while maintaining each text’s content and length. Lexile was manipulated primarily by breaking up long sentences with multiple clauses into short sentences. In our work, we found that college students’ comprehension for the low lexile versions of the texts was significantly lower compared to their comprehension for the high lexile versions. Sentences with multiple clauses lead the reader to make connections among those clauses that appear to be lost when isolated across sentence boundaries. This suggests that text cohesion may be compromised in some lower lexile texts. Furthermore, such quantitative measures of text complexity should be supplemented by qualitative measures that suggest how characteristics of the readers are related to text difficulty (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Fisher et al., 2012). Fisher and Frey (2012) recommend that teachers take the time to do a content analysis of potential texts, such that teachers look for:
• Levels of meaning – by considering how much relevant background knowledge would be necessary for comprehension. For example, some texts may appear quite simple if one engages in a surface read, but if the reader takes into account intent, context, etc, the text may contain multiple implicit messages
• Text structure and organization – by considering the organization of the text (e.g. cause and effect) Fisher and Frey also encourage the teacher to look for texts that include more signal words, more headings and subheadings, and other organizational features that make comprehension easier. Although the authors do not mention making these features explicit for the students, we argue that many students are not aware of how text structure and organization facilitates comprehension and we suggest that these features be made explicit to students.
• Visual supports – it is not sufficient for a text to have visual supports, those supports must accurately reflect the text. We agree with this recommendation and caution that including many photographs, diagrams, etc., that are either irrelevant or inaccurate may actually lead students to erroneous assumptions about the text especially for weak or struggling comprehenders who typically engage in only surface reading of the text.
• Student background knowledge – teachers should be aware of students’ background knowledge or lack thereof because it impacts their text comprehension. Although the authors recommend providing information prior to reading, they caution that instruction should only include information that is critical for comprehension.
• Reader motivation – a student’s intrinsic interest in a subject can facilitate their comprehension. Fisher and Frey suggest making activities and readings that are closely related, allow for student choice, collaboration, and thematic units.