Over the summer, I have been in discussions with colleagues from many schools, in my own district and beyond. It is evident that there is some confusion concerning what literature to teach. Before you start cleaning off your bookshelves, let’s discuss what is required according to the Common Core and what is left up to teachers, school districts, and states to decide.
The range of ideas about the Common Core Canon was startling. Some teachers believed we were required to teach the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and Literacy. Others thought that any literature by the authors of these exemplar texts should be included as well. Still others felt that limiting our students to only those texts and authors would do them a disservice, as there is a plethora of quality, complex texts in both the classical and contemporary canons. So, what do we do?
If you are feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone. I plan to integrate a range of texts into my curriculum. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative's (CCSSI) Key Points in English Language Arts, “They [the CCSSI] intentionally do not offer a reading list. Instead, they offer numerous sample texts to help teachers prepare for the school year and allow parents and students to know what to expect at the beginning of the year." The list merely aims to create a common definition of complex text. It was created to help us begin our journey. You can integrate an exemplar text that aligns with a thematic unit that you currently teach. Or, you might want to design a unit using exemplar texts as an anchor for a unit and then add complementary pieces of literature or informational texts that fall within the text complexity guidelines. I am using both approaches as I build my Common Core curriculum.
If you are like me, you may want to select other texts as well. According to the CCSSI, we have that right. The Key Points in English Language Arts provide guidelines for evaluating literature and informational texts:
1. Texts must demonstrate a “staircase” of complexity and progressive development of reading comprehension. Three criteria are used to evaluate the level of text complexity: Qualitative, Quantitative, Reader, and Task. The model of text complexity diagram to the right was created using information taken from Appendix A of the CCSS for Literacy and English Language Arts.
2. Include a combination of classical and contemporary literature and challenging informational texts on a variety of topics. The chosen texts must help students to “gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspectives.”
3. The Common Core mandates specific content: classical myths and stories from around the world, Shakespeare, American literature, and foundational U.S. documents. This suggests we must include folklore and multicultural literature.
The Common Core Initiative provides a detailed comparison of the qualitative characteristics of low-level and high-level complex texts to help you easily see the difference. I took the information from this section and created this chart called Qualitative Dimension of Text Complexity.
According to the Common Core Initiative, there are varying reasons for a 350L (Lexile) gap between high school and college level reading.
The Lexile levels have been changed to align to the Common Core Standards. The chart to the right compares previous Lexile levels for each grade band with the Common Core Lexile levels. Though Lexile levels is a good starting point, proceed with caution. Don’t let this be your only guide for measuring complexity of text. A text may have a lower Lexile level because of shorter word length, word repetition, and sentence structure; however, it may contain allusions or hidden meanings, which classifies it as a higher-level complex piece of literature. More information on Lexile Levels is available at The Lexile Framework for Reading.
I am using shorter pieces of literature and informational texts to create enough time in the school year to climb the staircase of text complexity. Shorter pieces also provide a way to cover a broad range of topics, thereby building background knowledge, which is often a challenge in the classroom. Quality magazines are a great source of informational texts. They cover broad topics and pique student interest in research. I find most of my resources in newspapers and magazines such as:
I love curriculum development, but I can't deny my apprehension concerning the journey ahead. Even the most gifted teachers I know feel the same way. Find comfort in the wording of the Common Core Reading Strand, Standard 10, of the CCSS in Literacy and English Language Arts: “By the end of the year, students . . . ” This phrase suggests that we are not expected start the year out with complex texts. Our goal is to get the students reading complex texts by the end of the year, either with scaffolding or independently. So, for those of us who thought we had to change the world in the first ten weeks of school, take a deep breath. I think a lot of good comes from so many of us working together to improve the education system. The key is sharing and supporting each other through the journey.