Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Text complexity and primary classrooms

In my recent blog entries I have outlined the recent developments in the US concerning the concept of text complexity, and discussed some of the implications of these developments, principally for secondary schools and teachers. To reiterate, the argument, as put forward in ACT (2006), has been, firstly, that the key thing which differentiates between students likely to be successful in their later, college or work careers are their abilities to successfully read and respond to harder, more complex texts. Secondly, research seems to suggest that, while the reading demands of college/University study, of workforce training, and generally of being a good citizen have held steady or risen over the previous fifty years or so, the texts used to teach subjects in high school has moved the other way, that is, become less demanding.

The response to these findings in the US has been to include in the new Common Core State Standards for English / Language Arts and Literacy (CCSS, 2010) framework a very demanding provision. This is that the levels of text complexity expected of school students need to be raised progressively, in order to ensure that school-leavers are as close as possible to being able to handle successfully the texts they will encounter at college/University. This demand has received strong support from some of the most high profile American researchers in the field, such as Adams (2010-11), Shanahan (2011) and Hiebert (2011-12). I discussed in a previous blog entry the major implication for secondary schools, that is, that some real attention needs to be placed on the deliberate teaching of reading at secondary level, if secondary school students are to cope with the complexity of the texts from which they learn in all subjects.

An interesting, almost tangential, outcome of the CCSS (2010) focus on text complexity has been the application of the same logic to the texts used in primary schools. The CCS Standards apply from Grade 1 onwards (Year 2 in the UK system), and the reading standard for Grade 1 states that students should: “With prompting and support, read prose and poetry (and informational texts) of appropriate complexity for grade 1” (p.11). For Grade 5 (Year 6 UK) this standard demands that students should:  “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, (and informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts) at the high at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently” (p.12). Elsewhere in the document, examples of appropriately complex texts are given for each grade.

However, as Hiebert (2011-12) has been at pains to point out, the research literature does not support a claim that texts used at the primary level in the US have become less complex. Hiebert accepts the argument that high school texts “have been ‘dumbed down’ over the past 50 years” (p. 26), but she goes on to argue this ‘dumbing down’ does not apply to primary level texts over the same period. Although she accepts that such a simplification of texts produced for young American readers may have occurred during the period from 1956-1962 (as evidenced by Chall, 1967), she cites evidence from her own work (Hiebert, 2005) where she contrasts the simplified text that young readers were likely to encounter in their reading material before the 1980s, with the texts provided for this group since then. A move from texts designed around the repetition of high frequency words towards the more authentic, literature-based material of the ‘predictable texts’ era of the 1990s was certain to result in greater levels of text complexity in reading materials. Such an increasing complexity in texts for young readers has also been shown by researchers such as Foorman et al (2004).

Such a situation was, until fairly recently, also true for the reading texts familiar to children in the UK. As Levy (2009) has made clear, the teaching of reading in the United Kingdom has seen long debate between the proponents of reading schemes, which tend to feature controlled and graded text, and advocates of the use of more authentic books (in the sense that they were written primarily to entertain and/or inform, rather than deliberately to teaching reading.) Levy’s research suggests that exclusive use of reading scheme books can limit children’s perceptions of themselves as readers, a phenomenon also commented upon by Ofsted (2004), who found that for some children, the scheme was a real limitation in terms of the range of reading they undertook.
“Most schools used books from a range of structured reading schemes as a central resource. Higher attaining pupils described how they had read these quickly and were then able to choose freely from books that particularly appealed to them. In contrast, those who struggled were usually reading books from a tightly structured scheme and stayed with the scheme for longer. In many schools, pupils saw this as something to be worked through until they became a 'free reader'. One low-attaining pupil commented: 'You go up a colour if you're good and down a colour if you're doing rubbish.'” (p.12).

Solity & Vousden (2009) have argued that reading schemes do little to promote enjoyment and meaningful engagement with texts, as, like the children in Levy’s (2009) study, many children tend to view the scheme as merely “a vehicle to teach the mechanics of decoding skill” (p.375). But Ofsted (2004) observed that:
“Almost all pupils in the most effective schools had some freedom to choose their own books, graded at appropriate reading levels. Their choices were usually monitored by teachers who also suggested new books and authors as a means of broadening their reading. As a result, pupils of all abilities were widening their knowledge of genre and their reading interests, increasing their vocabulary and developing confidence. They seldom saw reading as a race towards becoming 'free readers'” (p.13).

This suggests that many schools, especially the more effective, had moved away from the use of tightly controlled texts in the teaching of reading towards providing a much broader, and more complex, range of texts for children.

However, the text situation in UK schools has begun to change significantly. The Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (the Rose Review) produced by the DfES in 2006 was most significant for its advocacy of an approach to the teaching of reading through synthetic phonics – an approach which is now virtually mandatory in primary schools in England. Tucked away in its pages, however, was a recommendation couched under the heading “The value of regular texts”, which read as follows:
“There is some force in the view that, as they learn to master the alphabetic code, children should be given reading material that is well within their reach in the form of 'decodable books', that is to say, early reading books specially designed to incorporate regular text, which children can decode using the phonic skills they have secured” (p.27, para. 82).

Although this statement was accompanied by a ‘disclaimer’ that such decodable texts should not be the only texts that young children are given to read, this was somewhat undercut by the report’s obvious backing of “fidelity to the programme” (p. 21, para. 55), which states that, “It can be unwise to ‘pick and mix' too many elements from several different programmes because this often breaks up important sequences of work and disrupts planned progression”. The emphasis in primary schools in England since the Rose Review, with its main recommendations now enshrined in government policy, has been on persuading schools to adopt and follow government approved phonics programmes, which include the purchase by schools of approved schemes. The range of these schemes can be seen in the online catalogue (Pro5, 2011), and almost all include sets of decodable readers. The optimism of some of the offerings in this catalogue is quite breath-taking. One, for example, claims the following:
“With 89 fiction books and 44 non-fiction … readers, there are plenty of exciting books to choose from. Fun, varied and packed with humour, each book is 100% decodable so your children will be able to read them independently after learning just eight phonemes.”
One would expect publishers such as these to be able to employ the very best children’s authors to write their books, but an author who can compose 133 “fun, varied” books, using just eight phonemes, must be a marvel indeed!

Of course, hope must remain that English primary schools are not relying solely upon these decodable texts to form the entire reading diet of their young learners. Nevertheless the inevitable trend here towards text simplification is rather concerning, when from the US, from experts such as Marilyn Jager Adams, and Elfrieda Hiebert (both of whom are on record as being strong advocates of an approach to initial reading based on the teaching of phonics), is coming a pressure to ensure that the texts we use with learners in school, for a range of purposes, are rich and complex, because only by being such can they help prepare these children for the complex texts they encounter in the world outside the school walls. Are we at risk in the UK of throwing the rich text baby out with the non-decodable text bath water? Only time will tell. 


ACT, Inc. (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. Iowa City, IA: ACT.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010).  Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.  Washington, DC: CCSSO & National Governors Association

Adams, M.J. (2010-11). Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts. American Educator, 34 (4), pp 3-11

Shanahan, T. (2011). Shanahan on literacy – blog entries. June – August, 2011. http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/

Hiebert, E. (2010-11). Getting the Size of the First Step Right. Reading Today, December 2011/January 2012, pp 26-27. http://www.reading.org

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Hiebert, E. (2005). State reform policies and the task textbooks pose for first-grade readers. Elementary School Journal, 105, pp. 245-266.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Davidson, K. C., Harm, M. W., & Griffin, J. (2004). Variability in text features in six grade 1 basal reading programs. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8 (2), pp. 167-197.

Levy, R. (2009). Children's perceptions of reading and the use of reading scheme texts. Cambridge Journal of Education,39 (3), pp.361-377

Ofsted. (2004). Reading for purpose and pleasure, an evaluation of the reading in primary schools. London: Ofsted.

Solity, J.E., & Vousden, J.I. (2009). Real books vs reading schemes: A new perspective from instructional psychology. Educational Psychology 29, pp. 469-511

Rose, J. (2006). An independent review of the teaching of early reading. London: Department for Education and Skills. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100526143644/standards.dcsf.gov.uk/phonics/rosereview/

Pro5 (2011). The importance of phonics: a catalogue of systematic synthetic phonics products and training. Leicester: Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation. http://content.yudu.com/Library/A1ukc2/SystematicSyntheticP/resources/index.htm

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