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Project 3: Text Complexity

The concept of readability has had a variable history, moving from a position where it was considered as a very important topic for those responsible for producing texts and matching those texts to the abilities and needs of learners, to receiving very little attention indeed in the education literature. Dahlia Janan and I have tried to chart the shifting interest in this topic, and to advance an explanation for the receding interest in readability (Janan, Wray & Pope, 2010). This has paralleled changes in the ways the process of reading has been viewed theoretically, from a process of getting meaning from a text to one of creating meaning through interaction with a text. This paradigm shift in views of reading has appeared to make established views of readability, generally conceived as focusing on the perceived difficulties within texts, less adequate as a means of exploring the matching of text to reader.

There is a sense that we may be at a point now, however, where the significance of readability is changing once more. Some important work has been coming from the US over the past two to three years which makes it clear that a closer look at the text dimension of the reader-text interface is somewhat overdue. The issue has been redefined as one of text complexity, and there are some significant implications within it for the teaching and development of reading at all phases of learning.

Let’s look firstly at some of the background to these developments.

In 2006 an important report was published by ACT (formerly known as American College Testing) which reported on the testing of American high school students for their readiness to embark on study at college and University level. The rather surprising outcome of this report was that what differentiated the success of the students tested was not what are usually referred to as comprehension skills – looking for the main idea, making inferences, drawing conclusions from evidence, etc. The difference, rather, lay in the abilities of the students to successfully read and respond to harder, more complex texts. Those students who could read complex texts were more likely to be ready for college entry. Those who could not read complex texts were less likely to be ready for college. Performance on complex texts was the clearest differentiator in reading between these groups of students.

One of the reasons for the surprise with which this finding was greeted in the US was the fact that for decades a virtual industry had grown up in US high schools focused on the teaching of ‘content area reading’, in other words the teaching of students to use a range of strategies to comprehend the texts they encountered within their subject lessons. A similar concern and focus on reading strategies was evidence in the secondary literacy strategy launched in the UK in the early 2000s (e.g. DfEE, 2001), which drew heavily upon our own development work (e.g. Wray & Lewis, 1997). The message of the ACT (2006) report was not that this work on developing reading strategies was redundant – but, rather, it was actually a minor part of what really engendered student success across the curriculum. This, it was argued, was exposure to a range of increasingly challenging texts across the curriculum.

There was a further dimension to the argument put forward in the ACT report. This was reviewed in the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts document (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010, Appendix A) and drew heavily upon a research review carried out by Marilyn Jager Adams (2010-11). This revealed the clear and alarming picture that that while the reading demands of college/University study, of workforce training, and generally of being a good citizen had held steady or risen over the previous fifty years or so, the texts used to teach subjects in high school had moved the other way, that is, they had become less demanding.

There are, of course, some caveats to put forward here. Firstly, it is possible to question the evidence and difficulty levels of texts. As Dahlia Janan has shown (Janan, 2011), assessing the difficulty levels of texts, without reference to the readers who interact with them, is fraught with problems. It is also the case that the evidence available relates only to the situation in the US. We have very little comparable evidence about the situation in the UK as yet. The nearest we can get to this is the claim, in the DfEE Literacy across the Curriculum document (2001) that “Modern textbook pages contain a plethora of presentational devices: flow charts, drawings, colour coding, bullet points, bold type, explanation, labels, symbols and questions. The written text is condensed and difficult to follow without diagrams. The emphasis on the visual is typical of many modern school textbooks.” (p. 50). This suggests that one of the features of ‘modern textbook pages’ has indeed been a simplification in terms of text complexity.

One can intuitively recognise that there might be some truth and wider applicability in the problems identified here. In the key UK document (DFEE, 2001), Literacy across the Curriculum, there is constant reference to the need for teachers to scaffold and support secondary students as they interact with texts in their subjects. This is good, of course, but nowhere in that document does it suggest that one of the tasks of the subject teacher is to deliberately introduce their students to more and more complex texts with the aim, ultimately, of enabling them to cope unproblematically with the transition to college / university/ workplace texts. This is exactly what the Common Core State Standards Initiative in the US has proposed.

These US developments have helped us to set a research agenda for the UK, Malaysia and other countries. Research questions guiding us will be:

  • Have school textbooks become less complex over the past, say, 20 years in other countries apart from the USA?
  • How successful have attempts been to develop a literacy across the curriculum mindset in secondary school teachers of various subjects?
  • What responses should schools and systems make to the emerging insights into text complexity?

For more details, see David Wray's blog entries on this topic:

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

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

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

DfEE (2001) Literacy Across the Curriculum. London: DfEE.

Janan, D., Wray, D. & Pope, M. (2010) ‘Paradigms in Readability Research’, International Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 3 (17), pp. 19-29