Literacy in the Digital Age – Five Tools That Demystify Text Complexity

Literacy in the Digital Age

Editor’s Note: Teaching Channel has partnered with Student Achievement Partners on a blog series about digital literacy tools and their effective use by educators.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of students being exposed to and understanding texts of increasing complexity as they progress through grade levels. Often, though, it’s difficult to find an accurate way to measure texts.

Lexile and readability scores use features like sentence length and word frequency that are not always accurate measures. For example, the classic novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is considered to be at a lexile level for a 3rd grader. As educators, we know to use our better judgement because the themes and topics are nowhere near appropriate for that grade level.

Research supports the focus on text complexity and vocabulary. “The Baseball Study” by Recht and Leslie (1988) began by identifying the correlation between reading comprehension and student knowledge. Recht and Leslie discovered that students with low reading ability but high knowledge of baseball, outscored students with high reading ability but low knowledge of baseball on tests of comprehension. Landauer and Dumais (1997) took it a step further, finding that students acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they read a series of related texts. Combined, these studies indicate the immense possibilities when we equip our students with the necessary vocabulary, providing them with sufficient prior knowledge before tackling reading tasks.

The research is clear: knowledge of words is knowledge of the world.

So what does this mean for us as educators? If we want students to access increasingly complex grade level text, we must Increase student vocabulary, knowledge, and capacity. We’ve highlighted 5 tools below that are a means to that end.

1. Text Set/Expert Pack Project

The Text Set Project from Student Achievement Partners capitalizes on the studies mentioned above by creating sets composed of articles and media on a similar topic. Texts are sequenced to create a coherent and gradual knowledge-building process to empower students to become “experts” on the topic. Research suggests that reading a number of texts within a topic grows knowledge and vocabulary far faster than any other approach. These Text Sets typically begin with lower reading levels and increase in complexity to support students’ ability to read the next selection (mostly) independently, as they acquire a deeper understanding of the topic. The sets are equipped with a glossary of terms to help students access challenging vocabulary. They also include suggested activities to help students capture and express their learning.

Integrating text sets into your classroom practice is advantageous for all teachers, but particularly effective for content-area and related arts teachers. Educators across grade levels can use text sets as part of stations/centers or independent inquiry projects. In our classrooms, we make text sets available to students so they can answer a big question for a unit.

For example, to help students expand their knowledge of world religions as part of a social studies unit, we created a text set on fundamentalist religions. We then asked students to answer the essential question, “How can human interpretation affect the way religion is utilized and viewed?” Students were able to look at the cause and effect of human interpretation of religion by using the text sets.

Text sets can also be used to trace and evaluate arguments by providing several sources for students to analyze and synthesize. Don’t forget that students can also build their own text sets based on their interests. Empower your young people to create text sets for your classroom, your school — or the world, using digital media.

All educators can access pre-created text sets by joining SAP’s Teacher Group on Edmodo. Use the group code sma265 to access the community of teachers and all the shared materials.

2. Read&Write for Google

Read&Write for Google is a phenomenal Chrome extension that offers a range of tools to support students with both reading and writing on the web. This tool allows you to have words, passages, or whole documents and web pages read aloud. In addition, readers have the ability to highlight text in multiple colors, see word meanings explained with both text and pictures, turn words into text as you speak, and hear text translated into other languages. Simply add the extension to your Chrome browser to transform your online experience.

How might this tool be utilized in the classroom? Let’s rethink vocabulary instruction. Research suggests that “most words are learned by reading or being read to” — not by completing workbook pages.

Utilize Read&Write for Google to provide autonomy and empower students to create personalized vocabulary lists based on the texts they’re reading. Students can target unknown words to create lists that are meaningful. And with the click of a button, Read&Write for Google builds a graphic organizer with both the text definition and picture. The tool can also be used to take notes or to build a glossary.

3. Academic Word Finder

The Academic Word Finder is a tool brought to us by Student Achievement Partners. It utilizes the three-tier vocabulary system that is described in Isabel Beck’s book, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by identifying Tier 2 words. These are high-frequency words that appear across several content areas. The Academic Word Finder identifies these Tier 2 words in passages to help teachers select the most useful vocabulary to teach their students. It does not aim to replace an educator’s judgement, but serves instead as a helpful tool in guiding practice.

You simply paste your passage and then select the grade level. The finder quickly identifies below-, on-, and above-grade level Tier 2 vocabulary to focus on with students. It also provides the grade range, part of speech, meaning, and an example sentence for each vocabulary word.

4. Pearson Reading Maturity Metric

The Pearson Reading Maturity Metric (RMM) seeks to squash the issue of text complexity by going “beyond to measure semantic, structural, and vocabulary aspects of text with 30% greater accuracy compared to traditional measures, and instantly returns text complexity scores in grade levels.” The RMM identifies the Common Core Grade Level Band and shows comparisons to other measurements like Flesch-Kincaid, Coleman-Liau, Dale-Chall Readability, and Automated Readability Index.

The site is easy to use — you simply paste in a passage between 20-2,500 words. Then within seconds of pressing the “Analyze” button, the report is produced. This makes it much easier to select texts that fit in the appropriate grade level bands for students.

5. Text Compactor

Often we don’t have the luxury of having differentiated texts at our fingertips. Text Compactor helps to make this a reality by providing a tool that creates simpler versions of overwhelming texts. This works best with primary sources, informational texts, and passages that are more than a few sentences.

Teachers can use Text Compactor to create a shortened text in just three steps. First, copy and paste the original passage into the Text Compactor. Second, drag the horizontal slider (or enter a number) to set the percentage of text length to keep in the summary. For instance, setting the bar at 50 would keep about 50% of the text; 75 would keep 75%, and so on. The tool will automatically shorten the text to your specified length. Text Compactor uses an algorithm that gauges the frequency of each word in the passage and uses this calculation to shorten the text. When satisfied, teachers or students can copy and paste the new version into a word processing program or a language translation program. The text could also be pasted in a voice-to-text program like vozMe and read aloud to students. All teachers can utilize this tool to help struggling readers process overwhelming amounts of information and find meaning in the text.

App Smash

We love to app smash by using multiple tools together. The Academic Word Finder and the RMM is a perfect match. First, teachers can use the RMM to identify the grade level band, and then use the Academic Word Finder to identify appropriate vocabulary words. You could even take it a step further by using Text Compactor to differentiate the same passage for learners in your classroom, and then use the other two programs on the altered versions. The possibilities are endless when you app smash! Just get creative and don’t be afraid to try it out.

Stay Connected

Don’t forget to join our class on Remind: Digital Tools for TCHrs where we will continue to share one new digital tool per week throughout the school year. Text @4TCHrs to 81010 from your mobile device to continue learning together!

Natalie Franzi is part of the Middletown Township Public School leadership team as an Elementary Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction. She has previously taught middle school reading and special education in an inclusive elementary setting. Natalie is involved in EDCampNJ, EDCamp Jersey Shore, EDCamp Leadership, NJ/PA ECET2, and NJASCD. She is also a Student Achievement Partner Core Advocate and Google Educator. Follow her on Twitter: @NatalieFranzi.

Steve Figurelli serves as a Supervisor of Elementary Education with the Public Schools of Edison Township in New Jersey, overseeing the district’s K-5 Science and Gifted & Talented programs. In addition to his work at the local level, Figurelli also serves on Remind’s Teacher Advisory Board, is a guest contributor for ASCD, is a co-author of StuVoice.org’s Student Voice In A Box, co-organizer of EdTechNJ, and is a member of the steering committee for the NJ/PA Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveFigurelli.

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