Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.30.16On Text Complexity and the Long Run Calculus of Teaching

Image result for jamaRecently New York’s education department announced its intent to make changes to the state’s “common core” learning standards. I get that the standards need to be more user friendly and that responding to what teachers say about them is a good idea on many fronts.  But as Robert Pondiscio wrote in today’s Daily News, one proposed change is (IMO) a huge mistake:  The state’s proposal to de-emphasize complex text.  As Robert writes:

If New York’s new standards don’t explicitly specify complex text, there’s no guarantee kids will be taught or tested with the kinds of challenging materials that put them on a path toward college. As written, any text at any level will satisfy this standard. And that’s not good enough.

A colleague wrote me this morning to ask me what I thought about the changes and I probably overshared in my response, which was written as an educator but also as a dad. In the course of it I tried to articulate some thoughts on long- and short-run incentives for teachers that I think are important.  Anyway, I’m sharing the note below in case it’s useful

Making sure students read lots of complex text is super critical… maybe the most important thing that will prepare them for college and maybe the one thing that makes common core worth the fuss in the long run.  I think it’s terribly sad.

I worry about this as much as a dad as I do as an educator.  You know more about this than me but “flipped classrooms” seem to be increasingly winning the day in science classes, for example, and what that appears to mean is that [my son] comes home and watches the lecture or demonstration on video and then goes to class and does a lab or an activity. At open house the teachers tell me how engaging this will make science classes and I get that… it’s nice… and I see that there are some clear learning benefits.  But then I notice that he never has to read the text book anymore!

Again you know a lot more than me about the Sciences than me but my gut is that in the long run he can love science all he wants but if he can’t read and distill information from the literature of the discipline, which is often complex and difficult and requires a lot of practice to master, he can’t be a scientist.  Reading complex text isn’t fun and its payoff—while massive—comes years later.  That’s the problem as I see it. If you want to be a scientist you have to be able to read complex text and  I’m not sure you can just start doing that in college if you never reads scientific text now….

Every teacher faces some version of this challenge: How do I balance short run with long run? How do I balance doing what will make my students enjoy and engage in my class (and not incidentally make my class easier to teach and therefore my job easier) on one hand with what will prepare them to succeed when they pay the piper five years after they leave my classroom on the other (that’s the long run incentive).  All the calculus is stacked towards skewing over time towards the short run. Without some other incentive only a massive act of will that few can sustain preserves ideal long run decision-making.


Take Bruce Lewis. Lord, I did not like him when I had him as an 8th grader.  We respected him but he had to develop a whole “I don’t care what you think of me” persona to be who he was as a teacher. You got Lewis and you said, “Oh, crap.” But 7 and 8 years later, in college, I basically realized I was channeling what he taught me about essay writing again and again and again.  He made me the student I was years later but he had to be unpopular in the short run to do it.

The danger I see is teachers reacting to a short term incentive—let’s read what’s fun and what kids will love!–without sufficient balance with the long term one—let’s also read some things that are going to prepare them to read Origin of  Species or the Fairie Queen when they get to college.

This was true of me, by the way.  I unrealistically but earnestly signed up for Bio as a freshman or sophomore.  And I remember the first assignment.  We had to go to the stacks and read a bunch of scientific research and write a short paper about it.  And I couldn’t understand anything I read.  A week later I dropped the class.  It was the last science class I ever took.


Sorry for the long-winded over sharing.  But I think Robert is right.


4 Responses to “On Text Complexity and the Long Run Calculus of Teaching”

  1. Dennise O'Grady
    October 1, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Reading this after rereading some of Mike Schmoker’s “Focus” confirms everything I know about good teaching. Sometimes when I am about to present a complex text or more challenging grammar, I tell my students up front: “Brace yourselves. This is going to get hard, but it’s not impossible. Stay with me, and we’ll push through.”

    I work as a content area writing infusion teacher, and Doug’s description of a science classroom that focuses on the short-run is spot on. The science teachers I work with struggle daily with the fact that students don’t have the stamina or know-how to read grade level science texts (or textbooks) much less more complex science texts. That, very obviously, has huge implications for writing as well.

    They learn very quickly to drop it altogether because of the student resistance, the time commitment, and the fact that no teacher wants to be observed unless the lesson is highly entertaining (labeling it as engaging) and FUN!

    Many of these students come back only to tell about years of struggle in high school and college: retaking basic composition and English I coursework or even going back to remedial classes in order to learn how to read complex texts, annotate, develop and idea and evenly elaborate it in writing.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Jenna Schott
    October 6, 2016 at 4:33 am

    I’m not sure that complex texts and a ” I don’t care what you think of me” persona go together — and yet I entirely agree that some idea of what “kids will love” often translates to “what kids will sail through” and that does not meet what is needed, what is a gift, and, ultimately, what they will love.
    To take this farther: is anyone listening to the critical thinking of certain voters in this election and wondering at its lack? Is there an education connection that might have to do with addressing complexities, conceptual and written? In my experience, at least one-on-one, kids want to learn more. Let’s require it!

  3. October 8, 2016 at 8:07 am

    Hi Doug, I read this post the night before the #RR session on Thursday. I’m convinced that we (science teachers) are closing doors for students who could have excelled in science if only they had been taught how to access science texts (here’s my over sharing:

    I was hoping to meet more science teachers at the Reading Reconsidered training (I think there was just one) – is this a UK problem, or is it the same in the states?

    I’m sure you don’t need more work, but a Reading Reconsidered for Science Teachers handbook would be great.

    Thanks again for a great session – these events and your books have had a massive impact on my teaching and my coaching.


  4. Roberto de Leon
    October 11, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    I don’t generally agree with much of what Pondiscio says about Core Knowledge and reading, but I think he’s correct here that clarification is needed. Critical/challenging/worthwhile texts are so important. I teach at a traditional public school, and I can’t tell you how many photocopied worksheets on “the planet Venus” or some other standard topic are leftover in the copy room. That’s why some students don’t love to read. These challenging texts are what end up being class favorites. These challenging texts are what end up building lifelong readers.

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