Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Selecting and Using Complex Texts in Great Books K–12 Programs

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) call for students to “read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts.” Great Books programs, which include anthologies of high-quality literature, help teachers provide 
a “staircase” of increasing text complexity so that students develop their reading skills for the more difficult texts they will encounter in college and careers. The ability to read increasingly complex text is the best predictor of achievement among college freshmen, better than critical thinking alone (ACT, 2006; Liben, 2010).

The Great Books Foundation’s K–12 programs are based on the belief that, with well-researched, inquiry-based support activities, all students can comprehend, discuss, and interpret complex texts. To select the literature for its anthologies, the Foundation uses criteria that not only mirror the Common Core criteria for determining complexity, but go beyond them.

This paper will explain the Common Core’s definition of text complexity, the Great Books Foundation’s criteria for selecting texts, the role of Lexile scores in the selection process, and the routine of collaborative activities that support students in comprehending and interpreting challenging texts.

How is text complexity defined by the Common Core State Standards?

Appendix A of the CCSS (CCSSO, 2010) uses qualitative, quantitative, and contextual criteria for determining the difficulty of a text, as represented in the graphic below.

The qualitative dimension of text complexity refers to characteristics of a text such as levels of meaning, structural complexity, and language conventionality and clarity. This dimension is determined by professional expertise and common sense. A story with multiple plot lines is more complex than one with a single plot line; a story with flashbacks is more complex than one with a sequential structure; and a story with unfamiliar dialects is often more complex than one with only standard English.

The quantitative dimension of text complexity refers to a numerical score determined by an analysis of text features such as word frequency and sentence length. While there are numerous text analyzer tools, the CCSS uses Lexile scores for establishing ranges, or “bands” of measures for various grade levels. Appendix A emphasizes, however, that quantitative measures are not the only indicators of text complexity. For example, texts with common words, shorter sentences, and more dialogue may have low scores but actually be very challenging due to their qualitative characteristics.

Reader and task refers to characteristics of individual students and the activities teachers choose to guide their learning. Background knowledge is very important to text comprehension, and each student has a different set of knowledge and experiences. Readers also bring their own set of interests to each reading experience. Teachers must consider the cognitive capabilities students need in order to read and carry out other activities with the text, the degree to which students will be motivated to engage with the text, and the vocabulary and content knowledge required to successfully navigate the text.

Evaluating text complexity involves an in-depth consideration of each of these three dimensions, with extra weight given to professional experience and the individual context (Hiebert, 2013). Great Books editors give each piece its due weight and often consider additional criteria, such as the inferences required by the text and how unfamiliar vocabulary is treated in the text. Careful attention is also paid to the placement of each selection in the anthology based on its qualitative aspects. Finally, each text is evaluated in light of the specific tasks and activities that we recommend in Shared Inquiry (see table below).

Table: Dimensions of Complex Text Selection

Qualitative characteristics* Levels of meaning
Knowledge demands
Language conventionality and clarity
Quantitative characteristics Lexile measure
Reader characteristics* Cognitive ability
Background knowledge, vocabulary
Task characteristics Shared Inquiry™
  • Prereading (building knowledge, motivating questions)
  • First Reading (noting reactions)
  • Sharing Questions (asking questions)
  • Second Reading (close reading activities)
  • Vocabulary development
  • Shared Inquiry discussion
  • Post-discussion writing, creative response, and cross-curricular projects

*From CCSS: Appendix A (2010).

What qualitative criteria are used to select texts for Great Books Programs?

All Great Books texts meet a set of rigorous criteria that includes both quantitative and qualitative measures. The criteria must be rigorous because a primary goal of Great Books K–12 programs is not only to develop reading skills, but to develop critical thinking skills through reading and discussion.

The Foundation’s programs use a method of reading and discussion known as Shared Inquiry, in which students collaborate on a number of activities to closely read, analyze, and interpret a particular text. Because Great Books texts must sustain students’ interest over several sessions and also raise genuine questions of meaning, the qualitative criteria for selecting texts extend beyond those advocated by the CCSS.

Great Books Qualitative Criteria

  • Selections must support extended interpretive discussion. Because Shared Inquiry discussions call upon participants to develop ideas about the meaning of the text and support them with evidence, a story that has an explicit message or too little content to back up ideas is not suitable.
  • Selections must raise genuine questions for adults as well as students. Because teachers collaborate as participants in Shared Inquiry, the texts must be intriguing to them.
  • Selections must be limited in length. Because Shared Inquiry requires repeated work with a text and familiarity with its details, it is ideal if a text can be read in one class period.
  • Selections must be age appropriate. Because Shared Inquiry is about the discussion of ideas, texts chosen for a designated age group must be engaging, relatable, and appropriate for a particular age group’s level of maturity and life experience.
  • Selections must be well-written. Because students read a Great Books text several times, and much of a story’s meaning depends on how the words are interpreted, texts should use rich language and be examples of excellent writing.

A text can be of high quality and still not be selected depending on factors such as theme and diversity of genre, gender, and ethnicity. In fact, the average rejection rate for story selection at grades 2–5 is over 90%.

What quantitative measures are used to select texts for Great Books programs?

As stated in the CCSS, Appendix A (CCSSO, 2010) quantitative measures are a useful though sometimes unreliable dimension of text complexity. Great Books editors use Lexile analyzer tools because a majority of schools and libraries use Lexile scores to match individual students with texts of an appropriate level of challenge. The Foundation provides these quantitative scores for each selection to give teachers an idea of vocabulary and sentence structure.

In Great Books programs, the Lexile score of most texts falls within the stretch range of the grade for which it is designated. In cases where a text has a Lexile score outside the given range (lower or higher), the editors have carefully examined the text’s qualitative aspects, as well as its accessibility and relevance to its intended readers, and determined that it is appropriate for its designated grade level.

Reader and Task in Shared Inquiry: Supporting Classroom Use of Complex Texts

In addition to providing high-quality complex texts for students to read, Great Books programs address a major concern of teachers: How will I support my students in reading and understanding challenging texts?

All teacher’s materials for Great Books programs provide instructions for a routine, or “sequence,” of activities. These collaborative activities are designed to support students in comprehending and interpreting challenging texts and to teach them the habits of highly skilled readers. Carefully crafted for each particular text, the activities set a purpose for reading, build skills, and foster motivation. There are activities to help teachers provide their students with content knowledge, as well as activities that build vocabulary and strategy skills, provide motivation to exert effort, and increase comprehension and higher-order thinking. Taken together, these components of literacy instruction are the best ways to support students as they approach challenging texts (Shanahan, Fisher, and Frey, 2012).

Throughout each Teacher’s Edition, examples of teacher-student dialogue and suggestions for differentiation help teachers develop their students’ reading, discussion, and critical thinking skills.

Because Great Books texts raise intriguing and meaningful questions for them to grapple with through collaborative activities, students are motivated to stretch and work with more complex material than they might on their own.


National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Retrieved November 14, 2013 from Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy: Appendix A.

Hiebert, E. H. (2013). Supporting Students’ Movement Up the Staircase of Text Complexity. The Reading Teacher, 66(6), 459–468.

Liben, D. (2010). Retrieved January 3, 2014, from Why Complex Text Matters. Aspects of Text Complexity Project.

Shanahan, Fisher, and Frey (2012). The Challenge of Challenging Text. Educational Leadership, 69(6), ASCD.

Mark Gillingham is a senior researcher at The Great Books Foundation.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

10 Keys to Making Professional Learning Meaningful

Chances are, as you look at your calendar of scheduled professional learning days, you aren’t overcome with excitement. Traditionally, teacher professional learning has ranged from the good (the workshop that’s actually hands-on), to the bad (the never-ending PowerPoint presentation), to the ugly (remember that one presenter . . . ).

But, as the Common Core State Standards become the norm, the new standards and the expectations around problem solving and critical thinking are prompting a new look at teacher development. In the process, more districts and schools are thinking of ways to make professional learning meaningful and engaging.

The biggest challenge in teacher development isn’t teaching teachers something new, but ensuring that knowledge and skills are applied in the classroom. A 2013 study by the Center for Public Education found that the majority of teacher development has been ineffective at changing instructional practice and improving student learning. Still, CPE argues that the Common Core demands effective professional development that directly links teacher learning with classroom instruction to help teachers meet the demands of the new standards.

Keys to Strong Professional Learning

Fred Hang, Great Books Foundation senior consultant, has a simple litmus test for professional development, “Don’t bore me, don’t waste my time, and don’t talk down to me.” Above all, professional development should be useful, engaging, and applicable. As you prepare for the Common Core, look for professional development opportunities that incorporate these best practices.

1. You Do the Heavy Lifting
Similar to an ideal classroom in which students are doing the heavy lifting, in an optimized training, you’ll be doing the work. In Great Books courses, for example, instead of sitting and listening to an expert speak for hours on end, teachers begin to plan and lead their own discussions right away. During the course, teaches are engaged with the methodology that they are learning, says Linda Barrett, another senior consultant for Great Books, which makes the work stick.

2. Identify Key Takeaways
There’s nothing worse than ending a professional development session with a head full of buzzwords—and not much else. Indeed, you should leave any course with clear next steps and takeaways that you’re excited to implement in your classroom. When reviewing the schedule for an upcoming professional learning day or course overview, don’t be afraid to ask the instructor or facilitator, “What practical strategies will I have available at the end of the session?”

3. Establish the Connection to the Common Core
Right now, there are a lot of people talking about the Common Core State Standards without the true background knowledge of what they entail. If a professional development opportunity advertises itself as “Common Core-aligned,” be sure to investigate what that really means.

For example, Barrett begins her courses by explaining how the materials she’ll cover align with the Common Core’s expectation for complex texts. Teachers, says Barrett, “immediately see that these texts meet the demands that we have in our classrooms.”

4. Build on Background Knowledge
Just like your students come to you with knowledge and skills, a professional learning session should meet you where you are. That means being honest with your instructor or facilitator about what’s going on in your classroom and where you need help. “A lot of the things [that we cover] parallel things that classrooms are doing,” says Hang, “and I try to help teachers find connections so they don’t think they have to reinvent the wheel.”

5. Be Willing to Try New Things
In order to improve your teaching, you’ll have to change your behaviors in the classroom. For example, Hang focuses on teaching teachers how to listen within the thinking process. “You can’t discuss if you’re not willing to listen,” he says. Even if a strategy seems off base to you or like it won’t work in your classroom, sometimes it’s worth it to give it a shot. If it ends up surprising you, wonderful—and if it doesn’t, the failure can often add to your understanding of what your students need and why.

6. No One-Day Wonders
The Center for Public Education found that the professional learning that was the most effective incorporated follow-up services, including coaching or mentoring. Change takes time, so professional development should continue throughout the school year.
For example, during a coaching day at Dana School in Hendersonville, NC, a consultant from the Great Books Foundation observed and co-led discussions across classrooms and then debriefed with teachers. The course, says principal Kelly Schofield, helped teachers focus, not just on where students were already working, but on the next steps. In the fifth grade classroom, for example, students were already good at using the text, but they weren’t using that information to support their responses during discussion. The course, says Schofield, “gave us a lot of things to think about, but mainly, how teachers select and address student questions will move them forward.”

7. Consider All of Your Learners
As you progress through professional learning, think about how the strategies will apply on a practical level with your higher-ability students, those in the middle and the ones on the lower end. What techniques will you need to tweak for each group and why? “Sometimes our poorest readers are the best thinkers,” says Hang, which is why he encourages teachers to incorporate opportunities for students to talk and think before and during reading. In any professional development, ask about how to address students with ELL or special education needs, or other populations in your classroom.

8. Maximize 21st Century Tools
Technology is a crucial component of the Common Core, your classroom and your students’ lives, which means it should be a part of your professional learning as well. When pursuing a professional development opportunity, in addition to understanding how technology can support students’ learning in the classroom, check to see what resources are available to support your growth as well.

Recently, Great Books has added online options for schools and teachers. There is now a blended version of their core course, which incorporate one–day of in-person training with 4 hours of online material that is designed to support teachers’ development in the application of Great Books strategies. In the online portion of the training, teachers learn more about Shared Inquiry, apply it in their classrooms, and then provide feed- back online before moving on to the next step. Quality online professional development can provide the ongoing learning and reflection that can help make a one- or two-day workshop leave a lasting impression.

9. Time to Reflect
Reflection allows us to make sense of our learning, and incorporate that learning into our understanding. Professional development should provide time for individual and group reflection that helps you solidify and crystallize what you learned.

10. There Should Be Surprises
After Hang teaches a course, he often hears how surprised teachers are at what their students can do. “Before a course, teachers might say ‘my kids aren’t there yet,’” says Hang. “But after they take a course and use our programs in the classroom, teachers find out what their kids are truly capable of, and there’s always a level of astonishment.” Professional development should continue to bring new realizations as you incorporate it into your practice.

Samantha Cleaver has worked as a special education teacher and instructional coach, as well as an education writer and middle grade author. She is passionate about reading and literacy instruction, using technology in education, and connecting educators who are doing great things. Visit her web site.