Tag Archives: NCTE

Celebrate National Day on Writing on October 19

National Day on WritingOctober 20, 2012, will mark NCTE‘s fourth annual National Day on Writing (U. S. Senate Resolution 565). Because October 20 falls on Saturday this year, NCTE and collaborating organizations are inviting us to celebrate on October 19. This year NCTE is partnering with  The New York Times Learning NetworkNational Writing ProjectMozilla Hive Learning Network NYCEdutopiaNational Novel Writing MonthDigital Learning DayCommon Sense MediaThe College of Saint RosePulitzer Center on Crisis ReportingCreative CommonsSchool Library Journal, and FridayReads to encourage you and your students to take part in a global conversation on Twitter about writing and the role it plays in your life. For ideas about what to post, just click on the links for any of the collaborating sponsors.

If you decide to participate and/or if you decide to invite your students to participate, please post using the hashtag #WhatIWrite (and if space permits, #dayonwriting). The goal is to call attention to the remarkable variety of writing that people from all walks of life engage in across the nation and to recognize the important role writing has in all our lives.

Let’s get #WhatIWrite to be a trending topic on Twitter on Friday!

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Filed under Creative Writing, Nonfiction Writing, Student Opportunities, Teacher Opportunities

Establishing a Staircase of Text Complexity

One of the six shifts the Common Core Standards is challenging us to make is implementing a staircase of text complexity:

In order to prepare students for the complexity of college and career ready texts, each grade level requires a “step” of growth on the “staircase.” Students read the central, grade appropriate text around which instruction is centered. Teachers are patient, create more time and space in the curriculum for this close and careful reading, and provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding and supports so that it is possible for students reading below grade level. EngageNY

In the Common Core Standards, Reading Standard 10 specifies the level of text complexity at which students need to demonstrate comprehension at each grade. To further define what is meant by text complexity, the writers of the standards present a three-part model in Appendix A:

text complexity

Text complexity is defined by:
  1. Quantitative measures – readability and other scores of text complexity often best measured by computer software.
  2. Qualitative measures – levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands often best measured by an attentive human reader.
  3. Reader and Task considerations – background knowledge of reader, motivation, interests, and
    complexity generated by tasks assigned often best made by educators employing their professional judgment.

(Image © Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.)

EngageNY has posted Text Complexity Tools for assisting teachers in determining the complexity of texts. These tools include a webinar and PowerPoint presentation developed by the Kansas and Louisiana State Departments of Education. According to these resources, determining text complexity is a four-step process:

  1. Determine the quantitative measures of the text.
  2. Analyze the qualitative measures of the text.
  3. Reflect upon the reader and task considerations.
  4. Recommend placement in the appropriate text complexity band.

Step 1 — Determine the quantitative measures of the text.

We can use the Lexile level of a text from the Scholastic Achievement Manager (SAM) or the Lexile Analyzer to place the text within a text complexity band.

Fig 3: Text Complexity Grade Bands and Associated Lexile Ranges (in Lexiles) – from page 8 of the Common Core State Standards, Appendix A

Text Complexity Grade Band in the Standards

Old Lexile Ranges

Lexile Ranges Aligned to CCR Expectations



















Step 2 — Analyze the qualitative measures of the text.

We can use the Qualitative Rubric for Literary Text (available from the Kansas Department of Education on EngageNY) to analyze the important elements of literary texts that are missed by readability software programs, such as levels of meaning, levels of purpose, structure, organization, language clarity and conventionality, and prior knowledge demands.

For drama and poetry, quantitative measures are less valid, so we must rely on qualitative measures to help us place texts.

We can use the Qualitative Rubric for Informational Text (available on EngageNY from the Kansas Department of Education) to evaluate similar elements of informational texts, such as levels of purpose, structure, language clarity and conventionality, and prior knowledge demands.

Step 3 — Reflect upon the reader and task considerations.

When we reflect on our students as prospective readers of texts, we should take into account the motivation of these readers, their knowledge and experiences, and the purposes for reading the texts we set for/with them. Additionally, it is important for us to consider how complex the tasks are that we will be assigning in conjunction with the texts and how complex the questions we will pose will be. The Suggested Considerations for Reader and Task document provides a set of questions to guide our reflections (available from the Louisiana Department of Education on EngageNY).

Step 4 — Recommend placement in the appropriate text complexity band.

The webinar and PowerPoint presentation (Text Complexity Tools) demonstrate the process for placing To Kill a Mockingbird in the grade 9-10 text complexity band. Appendix A illustrates the process for placing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass at the high end of the grade 6-8 text complexity band (pp. 11-12), The Grapes of Wrath in the grade 9-10 text complexity band (pp. 13-14), and The Longitude Prize in the grade 9-10 text complexity band (pp. 15-16).

The goal of this process is to help us become more purposeful in our selection of texts so that we can help our students climb the staircase of complexity leading to college- and career-readiness. By selecting texts that increase progressively in complexity through the grade levels for our instructional focus, we will improve the likelihood that students will be able to successfully meet the text demands of college or their chosen careers by the time they graduate. So now that we have information about how to go about placing texts, how do we go about implementing this shift and Standard 10?

KSDE Common CoreThe Kansas State Department of Education is calling for the development of “complex text playlists” that would reflect the placement of texts using the three-part model of text complexity. Participants in the NCTE Connected Community have also been discussing the development of a database of quality classic and contemporary texts by grade level  and text complexity band to expand the limited list provided in Appendix B. Both this “playlist” and this database have yet to be fully developed and published, but if and when they are, they will be invaluable resources to teachers striving to provide students with this staircase of complexity. 

Cooperative Children's Book CenterIn the meantime, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has compiled a list of contemporary titles that address the text complexity expectations of the Common Core Standards for grades 6-8, 9-10, and 11-CCR with age range recommendations. This list includes works of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and short stories, most of which have been published in the last six years.

Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: Grades 9-12

For more insights on working with complex texts, you may find this chapter authored by 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling helpful in the NCTE publication Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9-12.

Additionally, the April 2012 issue of Adolescent Literacy in Perspective, published by the Ohio Resource Center, is dedicated to the topic of text complexity and offers more perspectives on selecting texts, scaffolding instruction for students reading below grade level, and working across content areas to provide students with access to complex texts. This issue also contains links to additional resources–including the Greece Central School District ELA webpage.


Filed under Common Core Standards, Uncategorized

Balancing Fiction and Nonfiction

In the past week,  the cyber conversation about the Common Core State Standards’ call for increased reading of nonfiction texts in English Language Arts has intensified.

Education WeekEducation Week‘s featured discussion poses the questions:

  • Are you in favor of more nonfiction reading in school?
  • What challenges arise when trying to teach students to read and understand informational texts?
  • And what are some nonfiction books you would recommend for high school students?

Celebrate 100 years of NCTE!Participants in NCTE’s Connected Community have also been debating the issue in a thread titled “mandated nonfiction”.

As you may recall, Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards provides the following rationale for the shift to increased reading of informational texts:

There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and instructional practice have not done enough to foster the independent reading of complex texts so crucial for college and career readiness, particularly in the case of informational texts. K–12 students are, in general, given considerable scaffolding—assistance from teachers, class discussions, and the texts themselves (in such forms as summaries, glossaries, and other text features)—with reading that is already less complex overall than that typically required of students prior to 1962. What is more, students today are asked to read very little expository text—as little as 7 and 15 percent of elementary and middle school instructional reading, for example, is expository (Hoffman, Sabo, Bliss, & Hoy, 1994; Moss & Newton, 2002; Yopp & Yopp, 2006)—yet much research supports the conclusion that such text is harder for most students to read than is narrative text (Bowen & Roth, 1999; Bowen, Roth, & McGinn, 1999, 2002; Heller & Greenleaf, 2007; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008), that students need sustained exposure to expository text to develop important reading strategies (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Kintsch, 1998, 2009; McNamara, Graesser, & Louwerse, in press; Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005; van den Broek, Lorch, Linderholm, & Gustafson, 2001; van den Broek, Risden, & Husebye-Hartmann, 1995), and that expository text makes up the vast majority of the required reading in college and the workplace (Achieve, Inc., 2007). Worse still, what little expository reading students are asked to do is too often of the superficial variety that involves skimming and scanning for particular, discrete pieces of information; such reading is unlikely to prepare students for the cognitive demand of true understanding of complex text. (p. 3)

In the Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3-12David Coleman and Susan Pimental, lead authors of the standards, elaborate on the types of texts to be infused to meet this call. At the secondary level, they specify which types of texts would fit the term “literary nonfiction”:

Range and Quality of Texts: The Common Core State Standards require a greater focus on informational text in elementary school and literary nonfiction in ELA classes in grades 6–12.

Grades 6–12: ELA programs include substantially more literary nonfiction. The Common Core State Standards require aligned ELA curriculum materials in grades 6–12 to include a blend of literature (fiction, poetry, and drama) and a substantial sampling of literary nonfiction, including essays; speeches; opinion pieces; biographies; journalism; and historical, scientific, or other documents written for a broad audience. (See p. 57 of the standards for more details.) Most ELA programs and materials designed for them will need to increase substantially the amount of literary nonfiction they include. The standards emphasize arguments (such as those in the U.S. foundational documents) and other literary nonfiction that is built on informational text structures rather than literary nonfiction that is structured as stories (such as memoirs or biographies). Of course, literary nonfiction extends well beyond historical documents to include the best of nonfiction written for a broad audience on a wide variety of topics, such as science, contemporary events and ideas, nature, and the arts. (Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards provides several examples of high-quality literary nonfiction.) (pp. 4-5)

The New York TimesWhat’s important to keep in mind, however, is that the CCSS are not asking us to abandon the reading of literature. Recent evidence of the potential benefits of reading fiction appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. In an op-ed piece entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul summarizes findings from neuroscience on how sensory language and figures of speech stimulate the brain and how the overlap between the neural networks that process stories and real-life social interactions can help improve our social skills and empathy. While Appendix A of the CCSS document does not reference these studies, half of the reading standards pertain to the reading of literature.

In the March 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, University of New Hampshire professor Thomas Newkirk may help English teachers who have focused their instruction predominantly on literature find the inclusion of nonfiction more palatable. While acknowledging the CCSS’s call for a reduction in narrative reading,  Newkirk argues that “narrative is the deep structure of all good writing. All good writing” (p. 29). Newkirk furthers his argument by citing cognitive psychologist and literary critic Mark Turner, who asserts: “Narrative imagining–story–is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining” (cited in Newkirk, 2012, p. 29). While Turner’s assertion dates to 1996, the recent neuroscience studies seem to bear him out. And Newkirk contends that we never really read just for raw information. In fact, he observes that textbooks are not read but are instead consulted, much like a dictionary, because their organization and formatting do not require sustained attention to the development of an idea. Newkirk counters that engaging nonfiction texts–even specialized academic writing and research reports–tell a story for they address unmet social problems, irreconcilable positions in a field of study, or new evidence that challenges previous thinking. As writers of these texts–what the authors of the CCSS refer to as literary nonfiction–take us on a journey of learning and discovery, they use narrative in complex and embedded ways. Newkirk advises us not to move beyond narrative; instead he challenges us to help our students uncover how narrative drives both fiction and nonfiction texts.

As we have been transitioning to using more literary nonfiction in our English Language Arts classes, we have at times struggled to find nonfiction that would merit the descriptor “literary” and that would also merit the repeated close reading that the CCSS calls for as well. In a recent tweet, Carol Jago (@CarolJago) recommended a source for texts that would challenge students to consider conflicting perspectives on questions of substantial human interest: the John Templeton Foundation Big Questions Essay Series. In this series, great contemporary thinkers from a variety of fields share their attempts to answer six “Big Questions” in an essay format. These essays can be used for close readings that could serve as the foundation for Socratic Seminar discussions (Carol Jago’s suggestion) and can also serve as models for students for writing their own essays.  Links to more literary nonfiction can be found on a companion page, Big Questions Online, which features columns, blog posts, and feature articles.

Profile PictureAnother source of literary nonfiction mentioned in the Twitter discussion thread #engchat is Longreads: The best long-form stories on the web which is updated daily from sources including The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and The New Yorker. The site has a searchable archive and a subject index. For updates on new postings you can follow Longreads on Twitter (@longreads) or Tumblr, or you can like Longreads on Facebook.

If you find these sources valuable in helping you to infuse more literary nonfiction into your instruction and in helping students discover the narrative drive in nonfiction, I hope you will share your successes in the comment section.


Filed under Common Core Standards