Resources and Thoughts On Pushing Students Up the Staircase of Text Complexity

Years ago I started a cross-country ski team in a small rural school district nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. To grow the program, I shamelessly encouraged and cajoled every student I could to join the team regardless of experience on skis or level of fitness. I remember working particularly hard on one reluctant 8th grader who told me he had a breathing problem that surfaced whenever he over exerted himself. I checked with his parents who said there was nothing wrong with his lungs, and if “William” wanted to join the team, he could. So, “William” indeed showed up for what proved to be an abbreviated season for the boy. You see, “William’s” problem turned out to be a lack of endurance. His “breathing problem” surfaced during day two when, while running alongside him offering my encouragement, he blurted in a frustrated manner between gasps of air, “See Mr. Danna. I can’t breathe. I have a breathing problem!” At which point, he stopped, walked off the field, and bid adieu to the idea of cross-country skiing.

The parallels between understanding the need to push students along the staircase of text complexity and my former student athlete’s endurance difficulties, “William” are uncanny. In “William’s” case, he had evidently never been pushed to over exert himself. When his lungs kicked in during physical exertion to oxygenate the muscles, he backed off fearing the worst.  Looking back, I probably could have done a better job supporting him through the first few days of practice. More one on one coaching and time to explain how his body works in response to physical activity may have kept him on the team (“William” did find basketball and his capacity to perform athletically in high school). But what about those students who struggle with reading? How do we get them to handle frustration and exceed their low expectations of themselves to read? How do we prevent them from quitting the team? How do we grow their background knowledge, fluency, phonemic awareness, and comprehension skills? By keeping students within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development while pushing them up the Staircase of Complexity.

In case you’re looking for definitions of text complexity, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) defines CCLS ELA/Literacy Instructional Shift Three,  Staircase of Complexity, as, “Students read the central, grade appropriate text around which instruction is centered. Teachers are patient, create more time and space and support in the curriculum for close reading.” Achieve the Core identifies Shift Three, Regular practice with complex text and its academic language, as “Rather than focusing solely on the skills of reading and writing, the Standards highlight the growing complexity of the texts students must read to be ready for the demands of college and careers. The Standards build a staircase of text complexity so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school. Closely related to text complexity–and inextricably connected to reading comprehension–is a focus on academic vocabulary: words that appear in a variety of content areas (such as ignite and commit).”  The only difference between Achieve and NYSEDs’ definitions for text complexity is that NYSED separates out Shift Six (Academic Vocabulary) from the definition. In any event, the definitions are self-explainable. But what happens in the classroom?

Developing students’ capacity to move up the staircase of complexity requires careful planning by the teacher. Understanding the qualitative measures, quantitative measures, and reader-task considerations of text complexity is a pre-requisite for instructional planning, and to do so effectively requires knowledge of one’s students. What is their reading level, fluency, comprehension skills, areas of interest, etc? What diagnostic tools are being used to ascertain student readiness and ability to read? What forms of strategic or progress monitoring are in place, and how are struggling readers supported to ensure they stay within the upper limits of the Zone of Proximal Development when interacting with complex text? Is Daily Five part of the program? Echo reading? Guided reading? Elbow to elbow reading? Are teachers differentiating by content, process, and product? So many questions for such a complex process.

I’ve read somewhere that learning to read is like learning to ride a unicycle while juggling at the same time. Reading is extremely complex, particularly when we are asking students to bounce off the upper level of their Zone of Proximal Development while learning to tolerate frustration. Fortunately, there are a myriad of research-based strategies out there for practitioners to draw from when engaging students with complex text. has a really nice “Steal these tools” link with helpful materials, and EngageNY has a well populated link to resources page. A must-see site I have my graduate students explore is the New York City Department of Education’s Common Core Classroom. In fact, a recent assignment in one of our classes led to a student’s discovery of TextProject, which offers outstanding resources for educators including Exceptional Expressions for Everyday Events. As we know, the information is out there on how to engage students with complex text. It’s simply a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff. And with that wheat, one can help the “Williams” of the world exceed their low expectations and thrive in a rigorous, literacy-centered environment that includes regular interactions with complex text.

Note: For individuals curious about research-based quantitative measures available to educators, check out Findings regarding tools to measure quantitative components of text complexity.


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