I've been thinking about complex texts recently, not only because there's been a lot of talk about the Common Core's call for increasing text complexity, but also because my ninth grade classes are reading To Kill a Mockingbird and my Juniors are reading Song of Solomon. Both texts are pretty complex, and too difficult for some of my students (most, in the case of my ninth graders) to read comfortably. I've been dealing with the problem by doing a lot of reading aloud--which has been great--but I've also been mulling over a kind of reverse Jane Fonda principle: Less pain, more gain.
Engagement, not difficulty
Learning should be challenging and interesting, and our students should be engaged, but we should not be giving them reading that is difficult for them. Here's a rule of thumb: the more difficult the task, the more engagement is required. The first thing we teachers should be thinking about, then, is engagement and interest--not difficulty. The more students are engaged, the more they will be able to tackle difficult tasks. This principle--of putting engagement before difficulty--is very important when you're thinking about reading.
The heart of the Common Core ELA standards is the requirement that students be able to read complex (i.e. difficult) texts independently. This is a wonderful goal, but school tends to go about it in the wrong way. If we want kids to read texts of increasing complexity, it is important that they (1) be able to read them, and (2) be interested in what they are reading--and if a text is so difficult that the student finds it painful, it is very important that they not try to persevere with that text. Too often, students get the worst of both worlds: they are not very interested in what they are told to read, and the reading is too hard.
The first thing we need to do is get kids reading a lot
Less skilled readers do not need "challenging" texts. Less skilled readers do not need to be pushed, as so much discussion around the Common Core implies, to read more complex and difficult texts. What they need is what all kids need: to read a lot of books they are interested in, books they can read, over many, many years.
The way readers become able to read complex text is by reading a lot of text that is not difficult for them. My son is a very good reader, and he reads quite a lot, but he has never forced himself--or been forced by anyone else--to read books that were difficult for him. He is lucky, but he is like most of our highly skilled readers. Most highly skilled readers grew up hearing lots of adult talk, were provided with lots of high-interest books from an early age, and were not forced to read books that were too difficult for them. In school, kids like my son never encounter text that is painfully difficult. His Science textbook may be kind of boring to him, but for him, unlike many other students in his class, it is not too difficult. When he gets to ninth grade, he may be somewhat bored when he is asked to reread books he's already read (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, etc.), but those books will not be for him, as they are for so many others, too difficult for him to read comfortably. Good readers get better not only because they choose to read more in their spare time, but because the assigned reading they receive is at their level. Forcing kids to read difficult text will not work.
Books that are hard may be manageable if kids are really interested
Good readers often try books that are diificult for them. If the books are too hard, they drop them. That's what I do, that's what you do--and it's what my son does. My son has, for a long time, been really interested in books about Black athletes; when he was nine or so he started reading the new biography of Willie Mays, a book written for adults. It was tough, but he kept at it, off and on, for nearly a year, and finally he finished it. No one forced him, but he did it.
In the same way, one of my ninth-grade students has spent the last month very slowly getting through the first two hundred pages of Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher, a painful memoir about anorexia and bulimia. My student usually races through books she's interested in, but this one is moving very slowly. That's okay; she's enjoying it, and she's very proud of being able to read it.
But if the kids want to drop them, or aren't reading them steadily, they should drop them
Again, isn't this what we all do? Sure, sometimes it's good to push yourself, but you need to want to push yourself. If you don't want to, you'll do what I did when I was assigned Proust in a college French literature class: you won't read it. That' wasn't terrible (I read Remembrance of Things Past in English, and I loved it), but I certainly would have gotten better at reading French literature if instead of being assigned Proust, I had been allowed to read easier books.
Over the past several months, my son has tried lots of books that sounded really interesting to him but that ended up being too hard for him to read comfortably. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Guns Germs and Steel, and David Remnick's book about Muhammad Ali, King of the World, are a few examples. He loves history, and he's been very interested in the lives of Black athletes, but these books were just too hard. He could read them, but only with difficulty, and he felt he wasn't getting enough out of them to continue, so he dropped them. That's okay; he'll read them some other time, and, more importantly, dropping Jared Diamond allows him to read Walter Dean Myers.
Challenge, not difficulty
In a sense, difficulty is always bad. We learn best when we are in the zone, in the flow, whatever you want to call it. You can't experience flow when something is difficult. Challenging, yes, interesting, yes, complex, sure--but not difficult.
[In my next post I'm going to look at some of the curriculum that's being developed for the Common Core Standards, to see how that curriculum looks in terms of text complexity, likely student engagement, and reading volume. Stay tuned.]