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Readability, the Common Core, and Vocabulary

If you ask a class of second grade students to define readability, they will most likely shrug their shoulders and give you a puzzled look. However, if you observe their classroom routine, you will soon realize that many of their daily reading experiences are shaped by the products of readability assessments, or "leveled books." Most teachers of developing readers spend a lot of time assessing their students' reading levels, using readability formulas to measure a text's complexity,  and then trying to match students with books that are "just right" for them. So, even though young students are unaware with the term readability, they are familiar with its concept. (When I asked my daughter what the yellow, blue, and red stickers on her 2nd grade classroom books meant, she matter-of-factly replied, "Most kids are allowed to read from the yellow and blue dot bins, but then there's Jasper — he's the only kid who is allowed to read the red dot books, since he's the smartest kid in the class.")

If you flash forward to the middle school classroom where students are no longer confined to reading from assigned bins, there doesn't seem to be the same emphasis on matching reader to text — despite the fact that "two thirds of eighth graders do not read at the 'proficient' level." (NAEP Reading_2009) Most likely this shift has occurred because middle school students are usually taught by content area teachers who are expected to introduce texts such as the Bill of Rights or complicated explanations of genetics, and even if their students struggle with reading these texts, teachers are still responsible for teaching the concepts conveyed in them. Furthermore, due to time constraints and a lack of training in the teaching of reading skills, teachers are forced to convey the content through summaries or illustrations instead of expecting students to be able to independently comprehend that content.

The Common Core and Text Complexity

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative is attempting to change such reading practices among secondary school teachers and students. When researchers used a readability formula to assess the Lexile level of high school texts and compared that average to the average level of college texts, they found a significant 350-point Lexile gap (Williamson, 2006 as cited in CCSS). Acting on such findings, the creators of the Common Core realigned the grade-level bands to absorb that gap beginning in second grade. In other Words, the CCSS seeks to gradually ratchet up the reading levels of the texts used in grades 2 through 12, in the hope that future high school graduates will be better equipped to independently and proficiently read the texts they encounter in college. This gradual increase in text complexity has been dubbed the "staircase of complexity": as students climb the grades, the complexity of their reading should ideally climb along with them.

Measuring Readability and Issues of Vocabulary

So, how is the readability of a text measured? It depends on who you ask… One quantitative measurement that is frequently used by teachers, parents, and librarians to easily assess the readability level of various books and texts is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula. Flesch-Kincaid reports a grade level score based on an algorithm that assesses two variables of a text: average sentence length (ASL) and average number of syllables per word (ASW). If you have access to a digital copy of a text, you can usually obtain the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level "readability statistics" for a text by tinkering with the Spelling and Grammar settings in Microsoft Word.

One shortcoming of the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula is that it assesses vocabulary based only on average number of syllables: the more syllables a word has, presumably the harder a word tends to be. What Flesch-Kincaid does not take into account is how frequently a word shows up in the English language. Students often think of "big words" as being harder words, but word difficulty also boils down to exposure. Although unstoppable has four syllables and din has one, more students have been frequently exposed to the base word of unstoppable: stop (once every 52 pages), whereas din only shows up once every 829 pages. So which word is harder?


Source: Vocabulary.com Dictionary

VocabGrabber orders a text's vocabulary by relevance — namely, how frequently words show up in a particular text as opposed to how frequently they show up in the English language in general. VocabGrabber is a useful tool to complement the Flesch-Kincaid scale, since it will give readers an overview of a text's vocabulary and will prioritize words that are highly relevant to comprehension. 

How can understanding readability help me teach complex texts?

One way to help students grapple with more complex texts is to be more transparent about measurements of readability in the classroom. Reveal to students the readability of a text before reading it, and engage in meaningful discussions about what makes a text difficult. As experienced readers, students are accustomed to skipping over more difficult sentences and trying to focus on those sentences that make more sense to them. Help students resist this temptation and begin to deconstruct the reading process by beginning discussions with questions like, "What is the most difficult sentence in this text?" "What makes it difficult?"

For example, one of the Common Core text exemplars suggested for grades 6-8 is Winston Churchill's 1940 Address to Parliament "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" (measuring at about the 10th-grade level on Flesch-Kincaid in Microsoft Word). Instead of summarizing the gist of Churchill's message for students or having one of your more proficient readers do the job for the rest of the class, ask students to first identify the more complex and important sentences in the text — without discussing their content. Then, isolate one of those "meaty" sentences for a close reading exercise such as annotation.

The central sentence in the following passage from Churchill's speech spans 44 words and VocabGrabber ranks seven of those words with top relevance scores of 4 or 5 (on a scale from 1-5).

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.


Annotating this sentence to identify the antecedent of it ("our policy"), using VocabGrabber and Visual Thesaurus word maps to replace unfamiliar words with more familiar synonyms, and adding the word that to more explicitly connect tyranny to its modifying phrase "never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime" are incremental steps that can lead struggling readers to decipher Churchill's message without relying on someone else's summary of the speech.

Guided annotation exercises can help students to become more interactive and observant readers of complex texts. And, once students begin to view a text as a collection of sentences and words, some much harder than others, they can more easily apply their decoding and inference skills to those especially challenging passages. The reward will come when students realize that they are actively making meaning from a text, instead of passively receiving someone else's interpretation.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 17th 2012, 5:58 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Very interesting! Texts with many short words are more readable the long word texts.

I also agree that it is better to give students the original text of something like the Churchill quote rather than a precis. Only the original has the power to call up the dark, terrible days of the Battle of Britain, and that's the kind of history students need to learn, feelings are well as facts.
Wednesday July 18th 2012, 11:01 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Hey, you presented a very unique idea this time.
Many of the VT writers off and on boil down in the above VT section many ways and means for English Language teaching skill. As I am a regular reader of this column, so I noted the uniqueness in this presentation.
Basic demand is identical which is the central issue also. To test the language proficiency level for the elementary class students . This "frequency" measurement criteria of a word as a whole is real interesting. I think it will encourage the students to read more.
For adding the connection for Churchill's 1940 speech I would like to extend a heart-warming thanks to you.
This is a rare chance for me to have a look of that time tested document.
Thursday August 2nd 2012, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
Thank you for the readable and interesting explanation of how kids are taught to
read. I especially like the mention of new ways of teaching. As we know, reading is vital for everyone. It can be enjoyable as well as educational. I applaud those who dedicate their lives to helping children and adults learn how.
Friday August 10th 2012, 1:07 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
Vocabulary Grabber is such a cool tool.

Yes, I think the Flesch Kincaid method of measuring readability is misguided, for the most part. It assumes that words are more readable and "easier" if they are short, with fewer syllables. This is often not the case.

If it were true, then "shun" would be easier than "ostracize," but they are probably equally challenging to a third grader --certainly "ostracize" is not 3x as challenging as "shun" simply because it has 3x the syllables. Based on my experiences as a teacher and researcher, "shun" is not known by most third graders, even though it is easy to "sound out" and spell, but neither is "ostracize."

What I also like about Vocab Grabber is that it tells how many times the word shows up in the passage. Theoretically, if a word is contextualized 5 times, the reader has a better shot at figuring out what it means. At the same time, the content word might be central to the text, and therefore important to teach.

Thanks for the reminder of the Battle over Britain speech. Stirring!

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