Text complexity, reading and the web

The Common Core English Language Arts Appendix A is great reading-seriously. Read just a little, and you’ll learn that, on average, the complexity of the texts provided to K-12 students as part of their schooling has decreased significantly over the past 50 years.

Further profound shifts in reading are underway as the primary content of reading shifts from carefully-edited printed books to the web. How complex is the web, and our daily reading on the web?

Thinking about this a little, I was curious to know about about the measures of text complexity for related topical references. George Washington, a recurrent persona  throughout American education, was once again my reference.

The pitfalls of quantitative text complexity measures are apparent when analyzing the top answer for “How is george washington a great president?” at Answers.yahoo.com. The top-rated answer was as follows:

HE was a great president because he was the first, so therefore had no one to get tips and guidelines from on how to be a president. the whole time he was president he basically was winging it, and didn’t screw it up, because if he did do poorly as the first president most likely we wouldn’t have had a president since. And he managed to do such good job for not being the most brilliant person at that time. He was actually favored to be president just because he was a leading, strong, and well liked leader of the revolutionary war… this made him very popular with the people and was just the sort of head figure everyone wanted at that time, and that sort of legacy still follows him today. He also set up precedents, such as only two terms in office and neutrality, and the cabinet.

A Lexile analysis resulted in a measure of 1340L, or beyond the “stretch” of 11-College and Career Ready on the scale. Similarly, Microsoft Word’s two measures also indicated significant complexity: a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 12.6, and a reading ease of 57.3.

To be fair, the Lexile folk suggest against analyzing “Unconventionally punctuated or formatted text” and further, require significant formatting and correcting to be applied prior to analysis. It is a nontrivial task, it seems, to gain an accurate measure of web content complexity.

Yet curricular strategists and designers are focusing elsewhere: on book-based text complexity-based leveling strategies. Where, in this dialogue, is discussion about how young people are introduced to sense-making of the widely-ranging, often incorrect, unedited text of the web?

It’s education, but also resilience, that I envision. Education and instruction can help young people identify quality content – that’s an information literacy to be sure. Psychological resilience, on the other hand, is something different. It is defined as the ability to excel in the face of adversity.

To be sure, what if we were to teach young people comprehend and analyze the imperfect text of the web? How can our instruction engaging young people to recognize instances of simple or poor language? Are there opportunities in our instruction for learners to critique spelling or vocabulary or structure?

Absolutely – with every web-based exercise, there are opportunities for all of the above. It’s simply up to us to include these exercises in our instructional day.

As Common Core rolls through states, districts, schools and classrooms, text complexity is likely to garner even more attention. That same attention must also be applied to the content of the web. After all, that’s where young people are!

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