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How to make reading more rigorous

Text complexity is key to success of new K12 literacy curriculum
Professor Tim Shanahan, director of the University of Illinois’ Center for Literacy, is keynote speaker at the IRA conference in May.
Professor Tim Shanahan, director of the University of Illinois’ Center for Literacy, is keynote speaker at the IRA conference in May.

Take it from one expert: Implementing Common Core literacy standards will be “hell” if district administrators can’t answer questions from educators, parents and policymakers about how the new standards will help students learn.

“When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s hard to remember you are there to drain the swamp,” says Tim Shanahan, who will be a keynote speaker at the International Reading Association (IRA) national conference being held May 9-12 in New Orleans. “In other words, it really helps to understand the research and reasoning behind the Common Core standards before you implement them.”

Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of its Center for Literacy, will discuss recent research into one of the key aspects of the Common Core—the importance of text complexity for learning success.

“In the past, we focused specifically on the kinds of skills we wanted kids to demonstrate—such as to summarize, compare and locate information—but the standards were pretty silent on how hard the text has to be when you demonstrate those skills,” he says. “Under Common Core, we have to pay close attention to the depth and complexity of the text when we assess student learning.”

Shanahan says text complexity is a game changer that could produce the most dramatic improvement in reading achievement.

“However, it is also one of the most difficult adjustments for classroom teaching. And because we are asking more students to read complex texts, it brings the potential of lowering assessment scores for the short-term and, in turn, generating questions from stakeholders about why reading scores are decreasing,” he says. “We need to be prepared to answer those questions.”

A full day at the conference will be dedicated to the latest research on how students learn to read. For example, Shanahan says he’ll review “how different students and various types of texts need to be paired for them to have learning success.” A

nd understanding the research information should help administrators set assessment goals, evaluate resources and determine professional development requirements, adds Stephen Sye, IRA associate executive director.

Literacy trends

This year’s conference sessions also will focus on what’s new and trending in literacy instruction, says Christy Trautman, IRA conference director. There will be sessions on closing the reading achievement gap, improving instruction for English-language learners and how teachers can collaborate to increase literacy in early grades.

The exhibit hall also will have a digital classroom so educators can check out the latest instructional technology, Sye says. There will be teacher-led education sessions of 15 to 20 minutes each. At the end of the conference, equipment and furniture will be raffled off to a school.

“Our program is grounded in the best research,” adds Trautman, “but also is readily applicable to classrooms and schools for immediate action. This should help any administrator feel confident in the professional learning and development that their teachers are receiving at the conference.”

Unique opportunity

Ahead of the conference, district leaders implementing the Common Core standards can join one of 11 ongoing learning communities being organized by the IRA and the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE). These groups, which are supported by a Gates Foundation grant, will be a forum for administrators and educators to discuss Common Core challenges and share solutions, Sye says.

The teams can apply to receive financial support to attend the IRA conference. Also, the IRA may arrange a conference session where the teams can network and share experiences. DA

Administrators interested in more details about forming a team can email Sye at

Harriet Meyers is a freelance writer based in Maryland.