In Praise of Text Complexity and RI.10

Lately I’ve been following Russell Walsh’s blog Russ on Reading. There’s a lot of intriguing content to be found poking around his site—not the least of which is the list of his own favorite blogs.

As a long-time editor, I was drawn into his most recent post “From Text Complexity to Considerate Text.” There’s much we agree on about “considerate text” and the responsibility of the writer to the reader.

But I can’t go so far to agree that “forcing students to read more and more complex text under the pretext of college readiness is a mistaken idea.” Instead, I’d argue that forcing (although I’d prefer “inviting”) students to read increasingly complex texts is a responsibility of educators and a key component of literacy curriculum. It’s definitely the foundation of our work at Inquiry By Design.

There’s plenty to debate about RI.10 and text-complexity bands, but there’s one point I find missing in almost all of these discussions: support for the underlying notion that kids deserve the opportunity to work with increasingly complex texts, both fiction and nonfiction.

Yes, it’s the responsibility of the writer to be as clear as possible, but it’s also the responsibility of the reader to recognize that difficulty can be a place to start. An opportunity to learn. A reason to dig in and double down.

The first step toward teaching that responsibility is being honest about our own experience as readers. Once they reach a reasonable level of fluency, most students grow to assume that they should “get” a text the first time through. Too often, little is done to actively correct this notion. We are so careful to show students that a writer’s first draft is not their final draft. We show them models of marked up texts and require multiple rewrites to reinforce the notion that writing evolves with multiple efforts. But we are rarely so conscientious about modeling that same idea in reading.

Yet, as experienced readers we know that we won’t “get” every text the first time through. We don’t expect to. The texts that keep us coming back and talking are the ones that ARE difficult. The ones we have to read two, three, or more times. The ones that send us out to look up an unfamiliar word or phrase. The ones that have us jotting notes in the margin, or underlining a particularly confusing or intriguing line.

Every time we go back to that text, we get something more out of it. Perhaps it was because the topic itself was difficult, or perhaps because the layers of meaning were stacked so tightly on top of each other, it took several times through to even notice they were there, much less to begin to tug them apart.

We honor and dignify kids by inviting them into texts that we ourselves wonder about. Difficult and complex texts—nonfiction or fiction— can stand up to multiple readings, not because of a pre-ordained level and lexile, but because the questions they pose and explore aren’t easily resolved. Complex texts are ambiguous, and as such they stand up to endless scrutiny and interpretation.

Part of apprenticing students to deal with difficulty is to show that this kind of work on the part of a reader can result in real reward. To me that’s the piece of “increasing text complexity” that most accurately translates into college and career readiness, whether or not it was the intention of the writers of the Common Core. The crucial piece is that moment where students no longer feel the need to close the book, “freak out,” shut down, and give up when a text gets hard because they have experience in dealing with difficulty and strategies for tackling and overcoming it. And most importantly, they have the experience of a real reward at the end of that work—an insight that they never would have come to if they’d never had the opportunity to try.