Balancing Informational and Literary Texts
The Common Core State Standards clearly state the proportion of informational and literary text that students should read over the course of a school day (see Figure 1). It is clear that reading must occur in classes other than language arts if students are to master all of the Standards.
Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework
Consequently, teachers in all content areas (including World Languages/LOTE, English as a Second Language (ESL), and Language Arts for Native Speakers, or NLA) will need to be able to select appropriate informational texts to use with their students. There is a wealth of informational children’s and young adult literature; the challenge for teachers will be to select appropriate texts, which can be a daunting prospect when faced with factors such as student characteristics and task considerations. The process can be simplified by applying a rubric based on the criteria used by the National Council of Teachers of English (1998-2013). Table 1 presents a sample rubric to guide practitioners in the selection of quality informational books.
The informational series, El Abecé Visual, consists of informational texts that can be used in Spanish instructional settings. The excerpt ¿Cómo se produce un terremoto? (Figure 2) is an example of text that meets all of the criteria for excellence in informational texts.
There are many informational texts that blur the lines between genres. Biographies may include imagined conversations or be told from an unusual point of view. These blended genres can be difficult to classify, but can increase student engagement in the content and provide opportunities for deeper analysis (Stevenson, 2009). Students can use a tool similar to Penny Colman’s Visual Model for Analyzing Fiction and Nonfiction Texts (2007).
Table 2 presents a simplified version of Colman’s model for use with students.
The biography series from Alfaguara, Personajes del Mundo Hispanico provides an excellent example in Edna Iturralde’s award-winning Conoce a Simón Bolivar. Table 3 shows an analysis of this book using the preceding model.
Knowledge in the Disciplines
At first glance, requiring knowledge in the disciplines states the obvious; teachers should make connections with other subject areas while teaching their own content area. However, a close inspection of the Common Core State Standards reveals that content-area teachers are expected to include high-quality literacy experiences in their planning and instruction. Teachers can include primary sources, Internet sources such as Kalipedia (Grupo Prisa, n.d.), and literature such as the previously mentioned examples to help students gain a deeper understanding of the content they are required to master.
Staircase of Complexity
Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards summarizes the current state of instruction in the U.S. by noting that while “reading demands of college, workforce training programs, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past fifty years or so, K–12 texts have, if anything, become less demanding. This finding is the impetus behind the Standards’ strong emphasis on increasing text complexity as a key requirement in reading.” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b, p. 2). Judging the appropriate level of complexity of a given text requires teachers to apply three measures—quantitative, qualitative, and a consideration of reader and task.
Quantitative analysis examines those aspects of a text that can be counted, but which may not be easily noticed by the reader, such as number of words, mean sentence length, and word frequency, to name a few. There are a number of quantitative measures for texts written in English, including ATOS by Renaissance Learning, Degrees of Reading Power® (DRP®) by Questar Assessment, Inc., Flesch-Kincaid, The Lexile® Reading Framework by MetaMetrics, Reading Maturity by Pearson Education, and SourceRater by Educational Testing Service. Researchers Jessica Nelson, Charles Perfetti, and David and Meredith, in conjunction with Susam Pimentel, lead author of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, compared all six quantitative measures and found that all were “reliably and often highly correlated with grade level and student performance based measures of text difficulty across a variety of text sets and reference measures,” and that any one of the six could be used with texts from second through twelfth grade. (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers., n.d., p.3). MetaMetrics has created a quantitative measure of complexity for use with Spanish texts, El Sistema Lexile® para Leer (MetaMetrics, Inc., 2012).
Qualitative measures of text complexity include those elements that cannot be counted, such as thematic content, genre (especially poetry and drama), complexity of format, and the prior knowledge a reader would need to be able to comprehend the selection. In contrast to quantitative measures, which can best be calculated using mathematical formulas and computer software, qualitative measures depend on the judgments of human beings with experience and expertise in the field of education. An example that demonstrates the importance of using qualitative measures to judge complexity is Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993). With a Lexile® of 760, it falls at the upper end of the 2nd–3rd grade band and at the lower end of 4th–5th (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, n.d.), but this dystopian novel explores themes and contains content that makes knowledge and emotional demands far beyond the capabilities of most students at these levels.
Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards provides rubrics for determining the complexity of both informational and literary texts in the areas of purpose (meaning in literary texts), structure, language, and knowledge demands (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b). Qualitative rubrics are being developed for measuring the complexity of Spanish texts (San Diego County Office of Education, 2012).
The third measure of text complexity is that of reader and task. The Common Core states that “the third element of the three-part model for measuring text complexity—reader and task considerations—remains untouched. While the quantitative and qualitative measures focus on the inherent complexity of the text, they are balanced in the CCSS’ model by the expectation that educators will employ professional judgment to match texts to particular tasks or classes of students.” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, n.d., p. 5)
There are many factors that go into selecting literature for students. In addition to reading levels, teachers should consider a student’s interest as well as the knowledgehe/she brings to the topic under study. In addition, there is the consideration of purpose (skimming, close reading, etc.) and intended outcome (research, problem solving, or enjoyment, to name a few). No one is better suited than classroom teachers using their professional judgment and knowledge of their students to analyze the reader and task component of text complexity.
For many of us, text-based answers have long been a part of reading instruction. Students have been well trained to find answers to multiple-choice questions in test passages, noting the paragraph in which the answer was found beside the correct answer choice. This is an important first step, but the Common Core State Standards go considerably farther, asking students to support a position both orally and in writing. achievethecore.org (n.d.) provides a seven-step model to guide teachers as they move from the correct answer “treasure hunt” toward a deeper understanding of complex texts. These steps are:
1. Determine the most important learning to be drawn from the text. This is the foundation for all of the activities and projects that follow.
2. Identify the central ideas in the text. Create a series of questions designed to assist the reader in understanding them.
3. Locate the most powerful academic words in the text, integrating them into class discussions to explore how they are used in the selected text.
4. What standards are addressed in the preceding questions? Are there other standards that are suited to the text? If so, create questions that develop those standards.
5. Are there any other academic words in the text that students would benefit from studying? Plan discussion questions that would enhance understanding.
6. Which sections of the text will present the greatest difficulty? Create questions that support students in mastering these sections. Look for difficult syntax, dense information, and tricky transitions or places that offer a variety of possible inferences.
7. Develop a culminating activity around the central concept. It should reflect mastery of one or more of the standards, involve writing, and be structured to be done by students independently (achievethecore.org, n.d.).
On the Wings of the Condor/En alas del cóndor by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy (2012) provides many opportunities for students to find answers in the text. Its focus on the contributions of the indigenous peoples of Latin America provides opportunities for a deeper understanding of our rich multicultural heritage. The section from pages 36–41, The first inhabitants of Latin America created sources of nourishment for all humankind,describes the cultivation of corn and its importance to the world and gives rise to text-based questions such as:
Based only on the information on pages 36 and 38, what can you say about how long it takes to improve the quality of plants?
Discussions could center on the use of the words nourishment and cultivate. Projects based on the text would naturally flow from each of the sections outlined in the Table of Contents and could involve writing from several sources.
Writing from Sources
Writing instruction has long focused on the personal narrative which, while allowing students to find their voices, failed to develop the skills needed to write successfully in real-world settings. Instruction should focus on the use of evidence to inform or make an argument. Narrative writing still has an important role, but the Common Core mandates that students develop the skill to create written arguments that respond to ideas, events, and facts that are presented in the texts they read, including short research projects. (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b).
Drawing on the preceding example, students could augment their reading of En alas del cóndor with La aventura de la papa (Brice, 2006) and En el huerto, frutas y verduras (Morel, 2006) and combine them in a short research paper about the development of horticulture.
Academic vocabulary has long been recognized as a key component of student success, and a great deal of work has been done to create systematic approaches to vocabulary instruction (Marzano, 2010; Seidlitz & Kenfield, 2011; and Sibold, 2011, to name a few.) The Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010a) take this a step further by asking students to “interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R4). Students still need direct instruction in vocabulary, but must now understand and be able to explain why an author chose a particular word in a given passage. Thus, in the previously cited passage from On the Wings of the Condor, in addition to teaching the meanings of the word cultivate and its synonyms, teachers need to guide students to an understanding of why the authors chose the word cultivate over grew or raised. This type of vocabulary instruction adds greater depth to students’ understanding of the text and supports them as they develop their writing skills.