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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Text Clusters, Text Complexity, and the Print Problem

Last night in my YA Materials class we were reading books about the Civil Rights movement: They Call Themselves the KKK; Claudette Colvin; Freedom Riders; Marching for Freedom. Some of the students knew Sue’s Hitler Youth, but otherwise the authors, the books, and even the subjects of some of the books were new to my 20-40Xyear old students. The books sparked some debate in that some of the students who are familiar with YA novels found the wide formats with many illustrations more middle grade than YA, and wondered if teenagers would resist the books for that reason. I am usually so grateful for the real estate in which to show images that I had not thought of that objection. But overall the students loved the books, especially in contrast to the textbook treatments of the same subjects they knew. One, who already works in a small school library, said she was working closely with a history teacher and she would love to bring these books to his students — and chuck the textbook entirely. But, how?

How is the key question. Does the class break up into, say, three reading groups, each gets a few copies of one book to share, and then they report back? Does the library house a single copy or a couple and students all use it there? Interlibrary loan? The books themselves meet a need. The hardcover format and price make it impossible for them perform that function. So we have a log jam in the schools, which publishers must face if they want to take advantage of the Common Core opportunity.

Which brings up another log jam. The CC mandates that students read works of increasing text complexity. Schools are scrambling to meet this challenge, and publishers have noticed. But, at the same time, publishers are mandated to Lexile their books if they want to sell into schools — using an extremely limited metric to match text and grade.

Whether it is trade books that are perfect for students but unavailable to them as classroom reads, or books that would challenge students and expand their thinking and reading, but are artifically categorized as too old for them due to their Lexile numbers, in opening up schools CC is also running into barbed wire. We all need to think about how to cut through.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    You and your students are certainly right to highlight this log jam. Availability of books is a major issue. One way I have gotten around it is through grants. Through the generosity of private foundations, I have been able to purchase books for my work in schools. However, this is not the answer for school systems. The answer for school systems is to decide between costly textbooks and trade books. Where should the limited funds go? The other problem is that we need to figure out a way of sharing materials. Teachers don’t all use the same materials at the same time. So how can we share? Could there be a central depository? A place we could call and request books when we need them? It’s like ILL, but it would have the multiple copies teachers need. Finally, we need to rethink how we are using the books. We need class sets of some books, but not others. Which are central to our curriculum? Which are supplementary? My hope is that CCSS will generate dialog and ACTION needed to support a high level of literacy.

  2. Lisa Von Drasek Practically Paradise says:

    Don’t forget We’ve Got a Job about the Children’s March! This title would fit with your topic. I blogged about it previously and keep watching it rise in praise and reviews.

  3. Sue Bartle says:

    I think we need a combination of approaches to develop access to the best NF for the CC. Interlibrary loan does work! As far as the cost of hardcover books – I challenge librarians to make sure they are getting the best price from the vendors they are using. Don’t settle for the vendor – because – “this is one I always use and it is easy”
    Get price quotes for your books from a variety of vendors. Maximize your purchasing power!

    Multiple Copies of certain books that can lead the way to generate extended study on a given topic or text structures we want students to identify.

    I guess I wouldn’t necessary call them reading groups – I would call this approach the learning centered classroom. If you have 25 students in a classroom – you could set up centered activities around specific titles that students will read and investigate what type of structure the author is using. In addition, this is a great way to bring in differentiated instruction for a variety of student learning levels. In this learning centered approach – there would be specific activities that students would need to perform so the teacher can assess their understanding of the text.

    Progress to remove the textbook needs to be a slow process. Your student who already works in a small school library is on the right track but I recommend a slow methodical approach. What she/he wants to do will take time and effort but she/he is on the right track and approach. My suggestion is to continue to build the collaboration with the history teacher and find out what the first three units of study for next September will be in this history class. Select one – prepare a text cluster of materials and then make the sales pitch – that in the fall the history teacher – not use the text book for at least one of the first three units of study. The librarian needs to agree to assist this teacher who will be walking a tightrope – moving away from a huge habit and crutch of the textbook – to the great unknown of using just NF to teach. The development of activities, assessments of student work, and rubrics will need to be developed. This is why you start small to remove the textbook. You can’t expect to pull the safety net out from under the tightrope immediately. It may take a few fits and starts to find the right flow for removing the textbook.

    I just started reading a fascinating book entitled – The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. By Charles Duhigg
    I have only read the prologue and first chapter but I have learned that observation is extremely important to change a habit. If you want someone to change a habit – like using the textbook then I believe checking out this book might help.

    Here is a flowchart on how to change a habit from Duhigg’s web site

    Great story in the prologue about a US Army Major who analyzed riot tapes from Kufa, Iraq and determined that removing food cart from the city square where the riots occurred helped diminish the effect of the crowd that gathered and the people went home instead of rioting.

    As I read this book I plan to think about reading habits and how better habit formation can help increase the interest in reading NF!

    The central depository should be the library! Or in the case of the model here in Western New York our BOCES has a Media Center where districts can participate and get access to a huge variety of materials – including a great multiple copies library that has just started adding some quality NF!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Thanks Sue this is useful, practical information.

  5. Don’t forget that lexile is one piece–a small piece, in my opinion–of the text complexity puzzle. One beef I have with CCSS folks is the grapic showing TC as a triangle with equal weight given to the three pieces. I see qualiatative and reader and task being much more crititcal in the assigning of text.

    Additionally, I’d like to see more IT used in lit circles…so much could be done with specific parts and passages. In the March–I think–volume of Educational Leardership one article notes that banishing copy machines, paper, test prep materials and new textbooks would free up district budgets for the purchase of books. I tend to agree!

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Myra and Mary Ann have been thinking about using Lit Circles and other means with IT — it is part of the larger package of ways to spread IT and engage students that we’ve been discussing.