Text Over Complexity and the Internet

When you read the recent reports about texts being read in the classroom you would conclude our students spend time lost in texts well below grade level.

Yet do we really suffer from a lack of complexity in what students read? The CCSS Appendix A cites a slew of research indicating a sliding scale of complexity. The Fordham Institute report, “Common Core In Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments,” written by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett add fuel to the fire by suggesting students should not turn to popular young adult fantasy novels. The authors suggest these texts are well below the grade bands suggested in Appendix A.

However,these curricular guidelines and critiques miss a very important text. The internet. In fact the Fordham report, which analyzed the texts being assigned in schools did not mention the word internet once. I find it hard to believe that not one student was asked to utilize the internet at all for any major assignment. In fact we know from recent Pew studies that the majority of students turn to the internet as their primary information source.

The Most Dominant and Complex Text

The internet by definition is the most complex text students will encounter. Let us ignore the additional complexities caused by searching for sources. We can suspend our knowledge about building your own texts through hyperlinks. Lets overlook the challenge of evaluating and synthesizing disparate texts. While all of these qualitative features greatly increase the complexity of internet based texts we could just examine the quantitative measures.

Using the Metametrics Lexile Analyzer I searched for websites that would fall in the suggested band for fourth grade. First I used Google advanced search just to find websites at the “basic level.” All of the websites I checked were well over the 6-8 band. I then checked teacher websites, teacher created webquests, and popular kids news magazines. Once again the Lexile scores fell well above grade level.

I found the search for internet resources  that fall within suggested lexile ranges for elementary quite difficult. Does that mean we should give up? Does that mean teachers should ignore the Internet in the early grades?

No. While much of the content at the elementary grade level could hide behind paywalls we still need to prepare our youngest students to read the most complex text. Here are a few tips:

Do not Create False Dichotomies

The CCSS, especially the writing standards, require students to integrate both print and digital sources. We should do so in the classroom as well. I just worry, based on the reports cited above the internet is being viewed as a tool to deliver texts and not as text that requires new tools.

Use Apss and Websites that provide Lexile Measures

New tools and apps have emerged that can provide guidance to teachers. Newsela,in partnership with major newspaper publishers provides links to multiple articles that can be adjusted by lexile range. Subtext, an iOS app, also will select texts at specific lexile scores.

Work to Create Open Ed Resources

The Professional Learning Networks I participate in have matured greatly in recent years. Maybe we should harness this power and move beyond the reflection, sharing, and discussion we engage in. Maybe it is time to become content creators instead of content pushers.

If we note a lack of Internet sources at the 450-945 range we could band together to make these sites available. Teachers across the country set yearly growth objectives. Why not include a self study of text complexity in those goals? Elementary teachers need far greater training in text structure, the teaching of academic vocabulary, and text complexity.

If we worked together to create open resources we would not only increase our own pedagogical and content knowledge but would fill a vast void in early elementary texts that has persisted since the birth of the internet.

Teach Online Reading Comprehension

This internet thing is going to be around for awhile. It will continue to transform our literacy practices. In fact I will say it again. We need to teach our youngest students to read our most complex text. Teachers can do this.

For example I often use Google Custom Search to make a personalized search engine. I will populate it with texts my students can use. I then throw in one or two distractor websites. This allows me to teach students about relevancy and reading search results.

I have also printed out search results and webpage so we can examine multiple cases of disparate text structure.

We can also utilize our librarians. They are one of the most important teachers schools have. By working in partnership we can design units that teach content while building internet inquiry skills.

Conclusion

I highly doubt our youngest students suffer from a lack of text complexity. My quick examination, and unscientific look, of the sites teachers assign during webquests actually show the opposite. Students, even when directed by teachers who sift through search results ahead of time, encounter texts well above the suggested grade bands. This of course ignores the additional layers of complexity caused by the act of internet inquiry itself.

I do not know if the same patterns hold true in the upper grades. I am sure someone has studies the lexile ranges of the most common assigned websites. I just know that by not even mentioning the internet in our discussion of texts assigned by teacher we ignore the greatest literacy challenge our students face.

Image: By Junior Melo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


 

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Greg McVerry

Greg McVerry is a teacher, researcher and scholar at Southern Connecticut State University.

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