As a young student, I always looked forward to the next new book. The teacher would read aloud and then we would be able to read independently from our own book box. I loved this part of the school day and I knew early on I wanted to be a teacher. Little did I dream that first as a classroom teacher and then as an intervention specialist, not all of my students would share my love of books. Indeed, it seemed that most of my striving readers preferred to read as little as possible. I searched for ways to encourage and support my reluctant readers. I thought about what I have learned about teaching, about the teachers I had growing up as a lover of books, and the effective teaching models I’ve experienced, observed, or heard about from colleagues. Then I read, and read some more, about the literacy research of Marie Clay, Richard Allington, Peter Johnston, and many others.
Finally, I came to realize what was missing in my teaching was finding a balance of the level of the text and the challenge of the task – an element of personalization that considered my students’ strengths and needs. Ignoring this is like juggling too many balls at once. Juggling two balls was doable by most of my students but as soon as the task complexity increased, it was similar to juggling to three balls, and it was more likely something would be dropped. That image seemed to describe my struggling readers. Once I embraced this idea of balancing text complexity and task complexity, I changed my teaching. If my students were reading a new genre, structure or topic, I provided more scaffolding for the complex text but also set an easier task for them. If students were reading their preferred genre or reading about their favorite topic, I could challenge them to read a book at a higher text level but also suggest they take on a more challenging task.
There are several factors to consider in building this new model of balancing text and task in planning instruction that meets each student’s needs while still managing an entire classroom. Let’s look at the key aspects of text complexity and task complexity to help us think about this instructional model, and consider what personalizing instruction means.
What is Text Complexity?
From the earliest of readability formulas applied to text mostly from grade 2 up (Fry) to leveling books in the early grades (Clay, Peterson, Fountas and Pinnell) to a wide range of measures considering qualitative and quantitative factors, the goal has been to establish a gradient of difficulty that would help with choosing texts for instruction and independent reading. No one system works for every type of text. Even within systems, there are inconsistencies and teachers often disagree with the level of complexity identified for a book. What seems appropriate for one student in one setting may not seem so for another student.
There are many reasons for this variation. The leveling systems mostly assess either quantitative or qualitative measures, and this analysis causes great variation in suggested complexity. The first readability formulas targeted mostly 2nd grade and up where the text was longer and there could be an adequate sampling for measurement. The various systems developed for the earliest grades have a different number of levels for teach grade, Kindergarten, First, and Second, because a finer gradient of difficulty was needed in the early grades for the emergent reader. These texts are shorter which doesn’t work effectively with most of the formulas that require at least a one hundred word sample. Also, more print concepts need to be considered as children are learning to look at print in Kindergarten and First rather than in Second and beyond where these are mostly under control by students. A last point to consider, but certainly not all that needs to be discussed about leveling, is to think about how much more nonfiction is now available in the early grades and particularly in the English language arts classroom. Criteria for leveling tend to be used across fiction and informational text but there are distinct differences in text structure and text features as well as how vocabulary is used in the different text types.
Another factor to take into consideration is how books are developed for young children. The craft of writing for children is a challenging one and many different approaches and styles are used. When I wrote a series of books about a group of characters each experiencing common “first” events in their young lives, I considered both the perspective of the children I was portraying and the young readers or listeners for each story. The events, feelings and experiences had to ring true to a five year old. Additionally, I needed to keep the characters and the structure consistent from book to book in the series. Thus, once a child had read just two or three of the books in the series, the characters were familiar and the idea of a new event occurring was understood as well as how the books were structured. Even though the books were given a similar level by evaluators, as a teacher and writer, I assumed some aspects of background knowledge from the series would make the next book more accessible to the reader of the series. This doesn’t invalidate the level suggested, nor control the order of the books read, nor assume that more than one of the books in the series will be read by the same student but is a factor for the reader. The same point would be true of background knowledge in an informational book. If the child is interested in dinosaurs, has gained a lot of knowledge on the topic, and is thus motivated to read more, how does this factor into the concept of text complexity?
This brings me to suggest that, in addition to text complexity, the task asked of the reader in responding to any book is an equally important consideration in planning for instruction.
What is Task Complexity?
The concept of task complexity is about what readers bring to the text and how the teacher challenges them. Pressley (2003), in his book on Balanced Literacy, talks about always teaching on the edge of the child’s learning: and their growing every day as readers. How do we find that edge of learning and match the task with the selected text to find that balance?
Whether we consider the vocabulary, genre, structure, topic, or any factor that makes a text complex for a reader, we can balance this text demand with the task we ask students to do in our reading instruction. The problem occurs when we ask every student to do the same task on the same day with the same book. What gets missed is varying the task complexity when deciding on the text complexity to select.
Let’s think about this balance in a small reading group where we have students go through a routine procedure where the teacher focuses on a small group for 15-20 minutes and personalizes the learning. Here is one idea about how we could vary the task complexity while meeting the text complexity expectations for students. If it is the first time students are really delving deeply into the text structure of comparison and contrast, this new encounter with a factor of text complexity must be balanced with the complexity of the task students are asked to do. With a Kindergarten or First grade student, or a struggling reader in higher-grade levels, it might be sufficient to just look for comparisons rather than jump into comparing and contrasting. Wait to introduce that Venn diagram graphic organizer till after the concept of comparison is established. This would make the task less complex even when the text level factors are more complex. How we plan for this instructional decision-making and achieve this balance in our teaching is critically important.
Key Idea of Balance
Ideally, in any given lesson, we need to have one known aspect for text or for task but generally not both in one lesson. When teaching a new aspect of comprehension or a new concept, there is little reason to justify using a longer or harder text in small group reading when a shorter and slightly easier text would permit the teacher more time to establish the comprehension focus. In the next session, the teacher could move to a longer text. Thus the constant forward march up the text levels of books might need an occasional plateau when a new comprehension strategy or a new task is introduced. This brief plateau could be about using a shorter text, or easier level of complexity. But then, we should continue to expand and broaden the students’ knowledge of the comprehension strategy on increasingly longer and more complex text selections.
Conversely, when raising the text level, the balance would be achieved by approaching it with a familiar task. If a graphic organizer for main ideas and details has been used previously, and it is quite familiar to the students, return to this known element when introducing a new text level, content, or topic.
As the teacher, ask yourself if both the information and the text format are new. The guiding principle here should be to add either new information in familiar text format or easier structure, or deepen familiar information in new text format or harder structure – basically avoid cognitive overload! And don’t forgot to allow sufficient time for discussion and even an occasional read to or read with in the small group instruction.
One last example of how to achieve this balance comes from a third grade group. I was working as an intervention specialist with the lowest group of readers in the class. I had several books in mind but started by offering them a choice between two books based on the group’s interest. One was on mummies and the other zombies, both at the same text complexity level and having the same text structure. Not surprisingly, they all chose the book about zombies, all the rage on television at that point. My goal was clear: we would read both books but they could choose the order by their interest in the topic. By letting them choose, I lowered the task level. After reading, I offered another choice by asking them to identify their favorite page or part. Almost everyone picked a different page. They had a wonderful discussion of the reasons they picked their page and then I got my favorite question of that school year: “Can we do this in our own reading and when we write about books in our journal?” The teacher and I quickly conferred and she and I both adjusted the task for their independent reading texts. A small change led to a huge outcome with all students at all levels reading many more books that third trimester than they had in the previous two terms.
In talking about teaching and learning with young children, Marie Clay (1991) said, “Make haste slowly.” This is a guiding principle of effective reading instruction. I am not suggesting watering down the curriculum; quite the opposite, there is an urgency yet precious little time to address literacy in the school day. Consider text complexity, yes, but balance it with task complexity based on what we know about the students, their learning goals, familiarity with the books previously read, and the myriad of challenges that make up the instructional day. In this way, we can make great gains and support students as they learn to love to read. We want them to be lifelong learners. Who knows? They might even become teachers. I know; I did.
Adria Klein, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at California State University, San Bernardino, and Director of Early Intervention Center at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is the author of a number of professional books, book chapters, journal articles, and many children’s books. Her research interests focus on early literacy intervention as part of a comprehensive literacy design, English language learners, and oral language development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org