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(Over)Simplifying Complexity? Interrogating the Press for More Complex Text

by Lauren Anderson & Jamy Stillman - January 22, 2015

Background: The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place a high premium on engaging young people in (complex) academic discourse around complex texts, and having them demonstrate understanding through text-dependent questioning and argumentation. Given the newness of the CCSS, however, little is known, empirically speaking, about their implementation and impact.

Objective: Focusing on how teachers make sense of and mediate CCSS implementation, this comment—like the study on which it reports—builds on the work of policy scholars and responds to calls for research investigating the impact of the new standards on instruction, particularly for diverse learners in the early grades.

Research Design: Findings reported in this comment emerge from a two-year case study of a high-performing, bilingual K-8 school. The study employed qualitative methods to examine interactions among standards-based policy, local school conditions, and the practices of teachers who have a demonstrated record of success in facilitating high achievement among a predominantly English Learner (EL) population and in both traditional (e.g., test scores) and non-traditional (e.g., biliteracy) terms.

Conclusions: The comment offers a data-driven account of challenges that arose as teachers worked to make sense of text complexity and engage young students around more complex, informational texts. In it, we show how even a well-intentioned emphasis on text complexity can run the risk of commandeering significant resources—traditional resources, like common planning and instructional time, and cognitive resources—and undermining, rather than enhancing, the complexity of classroom discourse, ironically itself a named priority in the CCSS. We also speak to the conditions that would be necessary for teachers to mediate standards implementation with more agency.


There is considerable agreement that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) differ significantly from standards of the past. Among other things, they place a high premium on engaging young people in (complex) academic discourse around complex texts, especially informational texts, and demonstrating understanding through text-dependent questioning and argumentation (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012; Frey & Fisher, 2013). Given their newness, however, relatively little is known, empirically speaking, about their implementation and impact. Of course, we do know teachers will play a significant role in both (Coburn, 2001; Spillane, 2002), as will contextual features, such as district -and school-level demographics, instructional programs, and performance status (Dutro et al., 2002; Gutiérrez, 2006).

To that end, for the past two years, weve been conducting related research in a high-performing, bilingual K-8 school in a low-income community near the Mexico/US border. There, we have been examining interactions among standards-based policy, school conditions, and the practices of teachers who have a demonstrated record of success in facilitating high achievement among a predominantly English Learner (EL) population and in both traditional (e.g., test scores) and non-traditional (e.g., biliteracy) terms.

In this comment we offer a data-driven account of some challenges we have seen arise as teachers work to make sense of text complexity and engage young students around more complex, informational texts. In this sense, our comment responds to the call for research that investigates the consequences of higher text levels on instruction and achievement in the primary grades in particular (Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013, p. 49). Specifically, we show how even a well-intentioned emphasis on text complexity can run the risk of commandeering significant resourcestraditional resources (like common planning and instructional time) and cognitive resourcesthereby undermining (rather than enhancing) the complexity of classroom discourse, ironically itself a named priority in the new standards.


In our study we hone in on literacy/language arts instruction for various reasons: because the school in question names literacy as its central focus; because language arts standards are particularly consequential for bilingual programs that aimas this schools program doesto cultivate learning in two languages; because English language arts remains one of the most (if not the most) legislated and tested subject areas and plays an academic gatekeeping role for students from non-dominant cultural and linguistic communities; and because a well-developed literature base exists concerning what robust language arts instruction for diverse learners entails.

Indeed, extensive scholarship indicates the importance of literacy instruction that: is relevant to students lives and cultures, honors students home languages as the foundation for language development, mirrors authentic literacy practices of humans in the real world, and embeds skill instruction in meaningful content and tasks (Au, 1998; Gee, 2001; Lee, 1995; Orellana, Reynolds, Dorner, & Meza, 2003; Souto-Manning, 2009; Valdés, Capitelli & Alvarez, 2010) Of course, since no one practice will ensure literacy achievement for all, a key emphasis across this literature base is the need for teachers to teach responsibly and responsivelyto select appropriate instructional strategies, and to adapt and modify those strategies as necessitated by individual children and the daily shifts and changes that occur in classrooms (Brock, Moore, & Parks, 2007, p. 899).

Keeping this literature in mind, we draw on Cultural Historical Activity Theory because of its nuanced attention to the mediating role of culture and context in learning. Specifically, we use it to frame our examination of how policy-related artifacts, local rules/norms, and diverse community members mediate teachers interpretations and instantiations of the CCSS, as well as teachers own learning (e.g., Cole & Engeström, 1997). (For further discussion of CHAT, see Engeström, 1987 and Roth & Lee, 2007.) Thus, the teachers represent the subjects in the activity system we analyze, while their ELA practice represents the focal object.

In our nested case study design (Yin, 2003), the focal school represents an overarching case and individual teachers (n=10), grade-level teams (n=3; first, fourth, and 7th/8th grade teams), and administrators (n=4) represent cases-within-that-case. We employ multiple methodsparticipant observation; individual, focus group, and video-mediated reflective interviewing; document collection (e.g., meeting agendas, instructional materials, student work)to capture how participants interpret and use the CCSS as they facilitate literacy learning, particularly among ELs.

Our coding schemes, developed and refined in alignment with our theoretical framework and the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), focus on, for example, teachers approaches to planning, teachers pedagogies during instruction, teachers sense-making and uptake of CCSS-related documents and discourse, and mediating contextual factors (e.g., norms of trust and collective responsibility, resources like class size and common planning time, and other factors that influence how teachers engage with students, each other, and the CCSS).

In this comment, specifically, we focus on the first grade team and draw from data assigned to text complexityan emergent code developed during preliminary analysis to capture direct and indirect references to text complexity (e.g., about how easy or challenging a text was for students), as well as observed or recounted engagement by teachers and/or students around complex texts.


We came to the school via some of its teachers, who we met in 2012 and invited to participate in research after they organically shared with us what seemed to be a generative and potentially conflict-inducing constellation of commitmentscommitments to asset-based bilingual education, to pedagogies favoring student dialogue over chalk-and-talk, to CCSS implementation (which they considered less cumbersome and more aligned to their vision of teaching than prior standards), and to reflecting critically together on their teaching.

Though not those we first met, the teachers featured hereRamón, Ana, Sofia, and Rociohold the same commitments. They work together in the first grade, sharing students and teaching in English (Ana, Rocio) and Spanish (Ramón, Sofia). Under the schools 50/50 dual immersion model, students spend approximately half their day learning in one language and half the day learning in the other (Crawford, 2004), and all receive language arts instruction in both Spanish and English. The schools goal is bilingualism and biliteracy for all its students. With this goal in mind, the first grade teachers plan collaboratively; they bring to their collaboration high degrees of inter-subjectivity, but also different backgrounds, experiences and strengths.

All four are native Spanish speakers living in the local community. All report loving their job and where they work, even if the demands are at times daunting. All dedicate enormous amounts of timetogether and aloneto planning, reflecting on, and transforming their teaching. Most recently, the press to engage students around complex texts had consumed a lot of that time and had become, as data will show, a source of questioning, concern, and even consternation.


One theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews with teachers across the grade-span was press from administration, as part of CCSS implementation, to utilize complex texts. As Ramón, put it, its an expectation that we present complex text, which often seemed to him to mean texts above grade level. Other teachers concurred. And yet, uncertainty and unease permeated their conversations about what constituted complex text, for whom, and on what grounds. Despite much wrestling with the issue, it wasnt one they felt they resolved or developed confidence around. To the contrary, Ramón reported, I dont think weve been able to find that balance of having a text that is complex at the right level for everyone, or for the majority of them; admittedly, without having found that elusive balance, administrator expectations for a high degree of challenge tended to lead teachers to err on the side of very complex, even too complex, text.

The resulting text selections frequently generated struggle among students. Some struggle was expected, even desired, by teachers and other staff, who placed a considerable faith in contemporary narratives about the importance of nurturing perseverance and gritin this case, encouraging students to tough it out with challenging texts. But often, even with teachers efforts to scaffold students engagement, students struggles went beyond what teachers were comfortable with.

For example, after Ana engaged her first graders around a text about deforestation, she expressed concerns about its complexity. Having paused in the moment, as planned, to discuss key terms and features, Ana could see that the texts vocabulary and structure still posed significant challenges that she had not fully anticipated. In debriefing, she referred back to a sentence describing how people made demands on the land, and she explained: what does demands on the land mean? &just the word demands, what does demand mean, you know, for them? Demand. I can demand something from you, but demanding something from the land?

It was not uncommon to hear teachers comment, as Sofia, did on another occasion: I talked to Ramón and I said& yesterday they had a really hard time when they were doing the close reading. We did text that was pretty high, and he told me the same&


Part of what made the issue of text complexity so challenging for the teachers was the contrast between the administrations messaging, which tended to treat text complexity somewhat simplistically, and what the teachers saw as a broader range of ways to think about complex literacy instruction and the role of texts therein. This contrast troubled the teachers, who were working hard to expand their own understandings of text complexity and to draw on prior knowledge to determine which texts, and which kinds of engagement around texts, would offer students the most robust opportunities to learn.

Our administrator told us& to use a Lexile to define what complexity is, Rocio explained, but as I was doing my research on the close reading, and going back again to the CCSS, because I do know the CCSS, going back to what the purpose of it is, and to really understanding how its laid out& its& how complex do you want to take it& in a way that youre gonna make your students successful. In essence, Rocio was beginning to question core aspects of the mainstream discourse around text complexity. Having researched the Lexile Framework, which generates quantitative measures of an individuals reading ability and a texts complexity based on variation in word frequency and sentence length, she was skeptical about the measures usefulness; she was likewise skeptical about the idea that complexity was a property of text itself, rather than something that emerged in the interactions between text and readerinteractions that she saw herself as having an important role in facilitating. For Rocio, teaching necessarily involved selecting texts based on dynamic understandings of students needs and designing experiences to ensure complex dialogue and learning around those texts. In this sense, even as her perspective diverged somewhat from that of the administration, it comported with the school-wide commitment to student dialogue as a means of facilitating academic language development in English and Spanish, as well as critical thinking. Rocio elaborated:

If we want them to really think about their own thinking and to be critical about it, or to use other information, or information they already know, then lets make a variety of questions that they can use to express themselves& I think we were so taken by &the word complex& when I mean, its like tell me what is complex [text], because maybe what is complex for me is not complex for Sofia, its not complex for Ramón, so its like, how do we get into a consensus that this [holding up paper] is complex for the students& We know every group of students is different& they have other experiences, they have other skills and abilities, so now lets use what they know, what they can do, and make it complex to them&

For Rocio, this notion of to them had to include recognition of her students as cultural beings and language learners, and what might make a text more complex for them as a result. She offered The Lorax as an example. About it, she asked rhetorically, what makes it so complex, is it the rhyming& the concept& the structure of the sentences&? She recounted having learned that The Lorax had a lower Lexile score than Where the Wild Things Are, which you can finish in five minutes. And yet Dr. Suesss writing, with its made-up words, might bring for Rocios students, many of whom were Spanish-dominant ELs, a kind of complexity that a Lexile wouldnt capture.

As her quote suggests, Rocios thoughts on text complexity took into account these nuances, as well as the kinds of analysis and discourse she imagined wrapping around a given text. She described, for example, planning to focus conceptually on The Loraxs message about the importance of socially just action and on the phonetic part& since our foundational skills are not so high. One discussion she envisioned would tackle, how Dr. Seuss used rhyming, and for what purpose& looking at the patterns more carefully& making a judgment on what are those words that dont make sense& it sounds like it, but its not part of this pattern. For Rocio, the analyzingthematic and phoneticwould make for complexity, not necessarily the text itself.

Ultimately, our data indicate that teachers experienced pressure from administrators to use complex texts, and that teachers understood complex to meanand to mean to their administratorsmore difficult in general. Indeed, the pressureseemingly rooted in administrators concerns about readying students for the kinds of text passages they would encounter on standardized testsmanifested in their directing teachers to select whole class texts that would prepare students for that level of challenge. Teachers, meanwhile, remained unsure about what should guide selection beyond texts just seeming hard. As a result, they mostly ended up engaging with text as a somewhat isolated, abstract entity and without taking into considerationor being pressed by administration to take into considerationthe complex interactions between readers, texts and tasks.

Ironically, these complex interactions are the ones to which literacy scholars like Hiebert call attention, as they work to challenge the conflation of text complexity with text difficulty. Indeed, as Mesmer, Cunningham and Hiebert (2012) explain, they are not the same. Gauging a texts difficulty for a given student in relation to given task depends upon first understanding the texts complexitythose aspects of the text that can be analyzed, studied, or manipulated (p. 236). Such nuance is part of what was seemingly being lost in translation as the administrators and teachers in our study worked to respond in practice to the CCSS emphasis on complex texts, as they understood it.


Late in data collection, well after text complexity had surfaced as an issue, we sat with Ramón around a small table. Our purpose was to engage in scaffolded reflective interviewing, in which we screen clips of classroom practice and interview teachers about what they remember, notice, and think. As part of the process, we ask if there are things teachers would like us to capture for them when videotaping, or glean from recordings for (re)viewing. Ramón, like others, requested footage of students engaged in dialoguea key feature of school-wide practiceduring times when he was working with a small group elsewhere in the classroom. As Ramón watched clips, a range of emotions registered on his face and body; he later shared that the clips confirmed and refined a concern that had been the topic of conversation among the first grade team.

In one clip, two students engaged in dialogue around an informational text, evidently struggling to make meaning of it, and addressing little of what Ramón hoped they would. Although they were some of the most advanced students in the class, the level of their discourse remained rudimentary because they missed that they had to get those key details from the textthe reason for which, Ramón felt, was definitely text complexity and something to definitely think about during collaboration with my team. When asked why and how he would bring this example to his colleagues, he elaborated,

Like, how is it possible that two of my high [highest performing] students are missing pretty much the purpose of the lesson and [not] collecting those key details from the text? ... What are we doing wrong as teachers for them to not understand?

In another clip, Ramón saw the kind of interaction he hoped was happening while he was elsewhere. Two students engaged in an extended exchange about the difference between the Spanish r and rr. With one unsure and questioning, the other offered examples of words in context and used emphasis and gesture to communicate his points. About this Ramón explained, I love how hes explaining to Carlo the sound that its supposed to make. If its [Spanish] its one r, its -ro not (rolling his r) -rrro. &theyre dividing the words into syllables& And theyre engaged, theyre focused& Interestingly, Ramón added that the text, which he and the other teachers had deemed appropriate for first grade, was critiqued by administrators who walked into the room during instruction: they were like, Thats too basic. And were like& Really?

To a degree, the latter clip made the former even more troubling to Ramón. It made clear the capacity that Ramón knew all his studentsnot just the most advancedhad for productive dialogue. It also made clear that high-level discourse was not necessarily occurring around selected texts, in part because the texts demanded so much from students just to make basic meaning of them. For the rest of the interview, and in future weeks, Ramón circled back to the experience of watching those clipsthe joy he felt seeing students teach one another around a text, and the dismay he felt seeing other students, also capable of teaching one another, just copying out of the text. Text complexity, it seemed to him (and to us), was undermining the very dialogue that the school emphasized and worked hard to cultivate among students, and that teachers considered a crucial aspect of what the CCSS stood to encourage.

And it wasnt just the discourse that showed signs of withering; there were signs of engagement suffering more generallya potential indirect effect of too difficult texts (Hiebert & Memser, 2013, p. 48). After introducing the topic of the water cycle and seeing students excitement to learnlike, Yeah! The Water Cycle!Ana conjectured that the texts were potentially quelling enthusiasm for the content. Maybe its the complexity of the text that is not making them, you know, Oh! Im gonna read about the water cycle! she explained, I can understand that, you know? Theyre like, Oh my gosh, Im gonna go and struggle with this text. &that could be one factor that makes them not be that engaged or that enthusiastic about what were doing&


In many ways, this account offers a compelling case of good intentions gone awry, resources well-meaningly misdirected.

Indeed, the schools emphasis on engaging all students around the same complex texts was rooted in a laudable commitment to high expectations, coupled with a heartfelt desire to avoid framing some students as less capable of handling a given text than others. It was also rooted in a belief in students capacity to excel and teachers capacity to scaffold learning in ways that would ensure excellence while also normalizing struggle and nurturing perseverance.

Likewise, teachers not only expected to also persevere through struggle, but they held themselves to that expectation, too. Rocios description, for example, captured well what we observed: long dialogues between us& [about] questions like, but how is this gonna work, or how is this relevant to the purpose, or how is this relevant to the standard& what is our goal& That the teachers took their charge as CCSS implementers so seriously underscores an important point: when pressured to implement policies quickly and with fidelity, even well-informed, dedicated educators can attend to policy-related demands in ways that undercut, rather than enhance, instructional quality.

Misspent resources here include timecollaboration time, much of which was spent wrestling with the mandate to use complex text, and instructional time, much of which was spent engaging superficially with and/or ameliorating students struggles around complex texts. They also include cognitive resources among both teachers and students. Teachers exerted significant cognitive labor to make sense of text complexity as a construct and to manage issues that arose when engaging students around above-their-level texts. Students, meanwhile, expended significant cognitive resources just to make basic meaning of (too) complex texts. Initially, this manifested for some in tearsnot uncommon during the transition to first grade, but also according to teachers, not entirely unrelated to text complexity. Once it became, as Sofia put it, more normal& for them to get exposed to this type of texts, the sapping of students cognitive resources manifested as diminished engagement, increased exhaustion, and relatively shallow discourse, rather than the deep, critical dialogue that teachers sought to nurture.

Not surprisingly given the expectations they held for themselves, the teachers took responsibility for flaws they perceived in their instruction: its partly our fault because our text is so rigorous (Rocio) rather than at their level so that they are able to dialogue and do that collaboration& and then slowly build that up (Ramón). They also took initiative; even knowing it goes against& what admin says, Ana tentatively suggested, for example, they pose it, I dont know, to admin, you know? Can we just bring [complexity] down, just a notch down?


These early findings give some credence to concerns articulated by early childhood scholars about the implications of CCSS implementation for developmentally appropriate practice in the early grades (Alliance for Childhood, 2010; Miller & Carlsson-Paige, 2013). They also raise questions about broader narratives circulating in the popular discourse and intersecting with CCSS implementationfor example, the idea that young people, especially from traditionally underserved groups, are best served by learning experiences that cultivate grit and press them to persevere through challenge (Smith, 2014; Tough, 2012) and that productive failure, a kind of wrestling through challenge, is essential to deep literacy learning (Frey & Fisher, 2013; Kapur, 2008). Indeed, teachers invoked both of the above narratives as they discussed CCSS implementation, particularly as they tried to make sense of students often reticent, even negative, responses to the new challenge of having to complete close readings of complex texts.

More centrally, findings suggest that the CCSS implementation process, even at a high performing school, pressed dynamic, dedicated, bilingual teachersthe kind of teachers for whom policymakers and practitioners alike clamorto practice in ways that were ultimately less sensitive, scaffolded and responsive to students than any of them intended. In fact, realizing this led Ramón to ask at one point, rhetorically and with evident sadness: if theyre uncomfortable, how are they learning?

It remains a profound question. At its surface its about possibilities for learning and the ways they might be closed off by undue challenge. On a deeper level its about the process of learningin this case learning how to engage with text, how to be and become a reader.

And it leads to further questionsfor example, about the well-documented dangers of a policy discourse and implementation process that corrals teachers attention toward singular emphases and/or traffics in over-simplification, which is ironically what seems to have occurred with text complexity in this case.

Given all this, rather than treating complex text as a gateway and/or necessary pre-condition for complex literacy learning, educators would be wise to nurture more nuance. Indeed, since even the most helpful, reliable measure of a texts complexity will have its limitations (Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013), we advocatemuch like Rocio abovefor an understanding of text complexity that is less about single or narrow measures, and more about process and pedagogy.

Framing text complexity in this way makes it something dynamic that must be thoughtfully constructed, across lessons and units, rather than inert and endogenous to text itself. Such framing helps underscore the primacy of the resources that teachers and students bring to interactions with text and, especially, the expertiseconcerning content, skills, students, and texts, toothat teachers must draw on to determine the right texts and how to engage students around them. Importantly, by right here we mean well-suited to a teachers instructional goals and her understanding of students needs, as informed by her knowledge base, in this case particularly concerning bilingual education and language acquisition. Hopefully such framing also helps ward off the temptation some might feel to respond to a situation like the one described above with strident calls for better measures, or packaged programs with pre-selected texts, or tools that can take the complex work of selecting suitable texts for students out of teachers hands. To that end, it is worth noting that, whatever the broader discourse and local implementation dynamics may be, CCSS documents themselves name as crucial teachers professional judgment, experience, and knowledge of their students and the subject, in determining an appropriate learner-text-task match (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, 2013); they also encourage teachers to select real texts based on a variety of factorsa potentially powerful departure from post-NLCB policies that have directed, and even forced, teachers toward implementing inauthentic scripted, basal programs and reductive literacy practices.

Finally, as this comment also illustrates, teachers need time and space to do this complex workto make sense of standards and their constituent constructs and components, in ways that draw on and deepen their expertise as well as their intimate understanding of the learners in their charge. Indeed, if we take seriously the tremendous variation that exists among learners, we should expect implementation to reflect that variation rather than assume that fidelitymeaning tight, uniform alignment with standards documents as writtenwill lead to complex instruction and deep learning.  


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 22, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17827, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:13:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Lauren Anderson
    Connecticut College
    E-mail Author
    LAUREN ANDERSON is an assistant professor of education at Connecticut College. Her research interests include teacher educator preparation and pedagogy, pre-service teachers’ learning in and from clinical experiences, equity-minded educators’ navigation of accountability policies and curriculum standards and the application of social network and qualitative methods to the study of educators’ work and careers. Her recent publications have appeared in Review of Educational Research, Language Arts, and Teachers College Record.
  • Jamy Stillman
    University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education
    E-mail Author
    JAMY STILLMAN is an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Her research interests include the preparation of teachers to serve historically marginalized populations, the impact of high-stakes accountability on teachers, teaching, and learning to teach in urban high-needs schools, and the preparation of teacher educators. Her recent publications have appeared in Review of Educational Research, Language Arts, and Journal of Teacher Education.
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