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.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

11 Tips to Turn Every Student Into a Close Reader

Let’s face it, close reading isn’t often a skill that comes naturally. When our students get a new reading assignment, their first instinct is often to race to the finish line rather than engage deeply with a text.

Getting students to slow down, engage with the text in different ways, and reflect as they read are challenges for every teacher, and are the goals of close reading. They’re also at the heart of the Common Core English Language Arts standards. There’s no magic way to turn your class into top-notch readers overnight, but there are specific close reading skills you can teach that will help your students now and down the line.

In Harlem, NY, Mark Gillingham, senior researcher with the Great Books Foundation, watches a group of seventh-grade students reading aloud “The White Umbrella.” At one moment the narration becomes unclear and the students begin debating which character is actually speaking. Their genuine interest in figuring out who is speaking drives them to read, reread, and discuss the section. “This close reading of text that leads to authentic discussion is what the Great Books Foundation wants to cultivate in ALL readers,” says Gillingham.

The key is learning how to annotate effectively. “When students are drawing conclusions as they annotate their texts, they’re using high level reading comprehension skills,” says Linda Barrett, senior training consultant with the Great Books Foundation. “As their annotation improves, students may begin marking the points when a character makes a decision or when an author uses a specific literary tool.”

Nurturing these higher-level skills takes time and many different techniques. You can begin to strengthen close reading in your classroom with these eleven expert tips.

1. Be a Close Reader Yourself
As you teach close reading, it’s important that you know the text backwards and forwards. Every time you raise an issue or ask a question for discussion (e.g. “How do we know that Macbeth feels guilty?”), you’ll know how to help your students find the textual evidence and where it’s located in the text. Modeling close reading through your class discussion is as important as direct instruction in close reading.

2. Teach “Stretch Texts”
The purpose for having students learn close reading skills, says Gillingham, is to enable them to read increasingly complex texts over time. As you choose texts to use with your students, think about your purpose behind each text. Look for stories or articles that raise authentic questions and could be interpreted differently depending on each student’s background knowledge or prior reading. If you’re working with a novel, focus on a section that lends itself to ambiguity and interpretation. And be sure to occasionally assign “stretch texts” in class. These are texts that you wouldn’t expect students to read independently, such as a critical essay or short piece of philosophy. “It’s a text that’s meant to be difficult,” says Gillingham, “and may require up to a week of study.”

3. Teach Students to Look for the Evidence
If your students leave your class understanding how to provide evidence from the text, consider your year an unqualified success. It’s the most central skill of the Common Core standards, says Elfreida Hiebert, president and CEO of Text Project. “The Common Core,” says Hiebert, “focuses our attention on what content the text is helping us gain.” Push students to go beyond recounting facts and plot points. As you’re planning, think about what higher order questions you can ask in class discussion and written assignments.

4. Always Set a Purpose for Reading
After your students have read a text through once, help them dig deeper by setting a specific purpose for reading it again. That purpose could be to track a concept or theme, or to analyze how an author uses a literary element or creates tone. Giving students something specific to focus on requires that they return to the text and really focus.

5. Differentiate Your Instruction
Even if students aren’t able to close read a novel independently, they can still apply strategies to a passage. Students may listen to an oral reading of the text, work in a small group with teacher support, or work with a partner to reread a text and prepare for discussion. If the majority of your class is not ready for independent close reading, keep in mind that the overarching idea is to get students to think about different ways that people can interpret text and build their own arguments around text, which can be done with picture books or read alouds as well as novels and short stories.

6. Focus on Making Connections
Rather than asking students a myriad of comprehension questions, focus their reading experiences around connecting with and remembering the text. Plan and ask questions that help you understand if students understand the text, and where they need to dig deeper into the big ideas. Hiebert suggests focusing on how the text relates to what the student has previously read, and what else they might learn about the topic after reading this selection.

7. Model it First
If students are new to close reading, spend time modeling how to think about a prompt and how to annotate the text. You might want to use a document camera to project pages of the text and read through and annotate a passage around a central question, modeling your thinking. After you do a few pages, release the work to students and have them take the lead.

8. Let Them Make Mistakes
If some of your students have clearly misinterpreted the text, ask them to explain their thinking or help you see the connection they’ve made. This gives them a great opportunity to practice finding textual evidence. Students may also chime in with other interpretations. The important thing is that students clarify and refine their thinking strategies, not that everyone has the same “right” answer.

9. Close Read Across the Curriculum
Once students are familiar with close reading in one content area, expand the process to other texts and content areas. Close reading can happen in science, social studies, math, and other subjects. Students can spend time delving into charts and graphs in science, discussing a math concept, or working to truly understand the various interpretations of speech in social studies.

10. Use Student Questions to Drive Discussion
Here’s one technique to consider. During Great Books discussions, teachers start by compiling student and teacher questions that come from the text. Once the questions are compiled in a list, the teacher supports the students in reviewing all the questions, identifying ones that are similar and answering some of the factual questions that only require a short answer. Together, the class discusses the questions and decides which are the most interesting and worthy of further exploration. This is a great way to help your students learn to ask higher-order questions and to write good thesis statements.

11. Listen to Your Students
Along with close reading the text, you need to close read your students. When you begin to let students’ questions and ideas about the text take the lead, you’ll find your class will be much more invested in the reading. Your role will be to keep them grounded to the close reading process. If a student makes an assertion, can the class find the textual evidence for it? If not, why not? Is a new theory needed? As you probe into your students’ questions, you’ll learn more about where your students are and give them opportunities to engage deeper with the text. Ultimately, says Gillingham, “you are learning everything you can from your students.”

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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Celebrating Tove Jansson and Moomins

January 2014 marks the centennial of the birth of Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson. Her delightful story “The Hemulen Who Loved Silence” (Junior Great Books Series 4, Book Two) is a long-time favorite of Junior Great Books students. If you aren’t familiar with the story, I encourage you to read it—you’re unlikely to encounter a bored Hemulen pleasure-ground ticket puncher whose dream life isn’t what he envisioned elsewhere. I discovered the Moomin books and the world of Moominvalley when I was five, soon after my family transferred to Goose Bay, Labrador, and the strangeness of Jansson’s other-worldy characters and landscape made the strangeness of my new surroundings less intimidating.

Tove Jansson’s life was as rich as her imagination. Born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1914, into a family of the Swedish-speaking minority, her parents were both artists—her mother a designer, her father, a sculptor. Creativity was a given in Jansson’s family, to the extent that her father referred to her as an Artist with a capital A since birth. The family was close and supportive, and spent summers at a cottage on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. “Without a happy childhood,” she once observed, “I would never have started writing.”1 Readers of her books will recognize Moominvalley life in her description of her youth:

"We lived in a large, dilapidated studio, and through the windows one could see the whole harbour and the roofs of Helsinki. I pitied other children who had to live in ordinary flats, who had living rooms without staircases and sleeping compartments up close to the ceiling, nothing like the mysterious jumble of turntables, sacks with plaster and cases with clay, pieces of wood and iron constructions where one could hide and build in peace. A home without sculptures seemed as naked to me as one without books . . . . " 2

As a young woman, Jansson studied book design in Stockholm and painting in Helsinki, Paris, and Florence. The first hippo-like Moomintroll appeared in public in 1938 when twenty-four-year-old Jansson worked as a cartoonist for a Finnish anti-fascist magazine—she published an anti-Hitler cartoon and signed it with a frowning Moomin. But Jansson drew the first frowning Moomintroll years earlier in an equally surprising location. When they were kids, Jansson and her brother Per used to share thoughts by writing on the outhouse wall at her family’s cottage. After Per wrote a complex quote from a philosopher, Tove wanted to contradict him but the quote "was so impossible to argue with that my only chance was to draw the ugliest figure I could." 3 Tove later said that the horrific war years motivated her to turn the frowning, ugly Moomin into a wide-eyed adventure seeker and observer that developed into the Moomin books.

Her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was published in 1945, and three more followed by 1950. The Moomin books were wildly popular in Finland and Sweden, and they reached an international audience after the London Evening News began publishing a Moomin comic strip drawn by Jansson in 1952. Eventually Mooomin comic strips ran in twelve countries and hundreds of newspapers, and by the end of her seven-year contract Jansson had drawn more than 10,000 comic strip frames. Moomins grew into a cultural phenomenon—including Russian and Japanese television shows, plays, operas, and a theme park—and the nine books in the Moomin series have been translated into forty-three languages.

The splendid visuals and fun of the Moomin books are enough to captivate young readers, and older readers (including adults) react to the strong narratives of characters responding to uncertainty and pondering the problems of friendship, solitude, and freedom. The books center around the Moomin family—good-natured, naive Moomintroll who loves fun and adventure; his mother, strong, loving Moominmamma who rarely says no; and his top-hat-wearing father, Moominpapa, who loves the sea and keeps track of his many adventures in a book called Memoirs. Like Jansson’s family, the Mommins are eccentric, tolerant of diversity, live close to nature, and value personal freedom. The Moomin household welcomes all needy souls and orphans, and the books introduce a large cast of intriguing, fantastical creatures. Nature and the seasons play a large role in Moomin life, and Jansson’s basic philosophy of acceptance and quest for solitude resonant throughout.

When asked how she perceived her Moomin reading audience, Jansson explained:

I write for myself first, not children. But if my stories are directed toward a certain type of reader, then it has to be a “skrutt.” By that, I mean those who have a hard time fitting in somewhere; those on the fringe, the lost ones. We all try to avoid being viewed as a “skrutt . . . . “ 4

Jansson also published novels and short-story collections for adults, and illustrated English and Swedish additions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, as well as J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. She died in 2001, but never distanced herself too far from the Moomins in her lifetime. "You feel a cold wind on your legs when you step outside Moominvalley Valley, 5 she said.

Read more about the official centennial celebration Tove 100—Celebrating the art and life of Tove Jansson

1. Bo Carpelin, translation of “Tove Jansson,” Min väg till barnboken, B. Strömstedt, ed., Bonniers, 1964, as cited in Something About the Author, Volume 41, Anne Commire, ed. Gale, 1985. p.109.

2. Doris de Montreville and Donna Hill, eds., Third Book of Junior Authors. H. W. Wilson, 1972. pp. 147–8.

3. “Tove Jansson and the Moomin Story,” by Pekka Tarkka and Peter Marten, updated April 2010,thisisFINLAND, produced by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and published by the Finland Promotion Board,

4. Carpelin, as cited in Commire, p. 113.

5. "Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words," by Boel Westin, Review by Sue Prideaux

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.