On Text Complexity and the Literature Classroom

In 2011 and 2012, as the then newly released Common Core Standards were being introduced to the states for adoption, expressions of concern, criticism, outrage, and also support (occasionally enthusiastic, more often qualified and ambivalent) began to make themselves heard among members of the NCTE and MLA. One result was a panel of commentary on the English language arts (ELA) standards at the MLA Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, in January of 2013. There past MLA Presidents Gerald Graff, Michael Holquist, J. Hillis Miller, and Catharine Stimpson discussed the promise the standards held to give all students access to an education grounded in critical encounter with challenging texts rather than memorization of rote information, paired with the purpose the standards announced to markedly curtail the use of literature in the English curriculum and classroom.

Two features prominent in the standards documents attracted particular attention: the sharp and to many of us baffling way the standards distinguish between literary text and informational text and the earnest, even anxious way the standards approach text complexity, most especially in Appendix A. Appendix A is revealing in the way it grapples with the problems of text difficulty and text selection. Confronting the question of how to identify texts that will be appropriate for students at a given grade or skill level, Appendix A seeks a technical solution, based in quantifiable text characteristics, that could be administered mechanically from the level of policy, but is forced to concede that the judgment of human readers, in the form of teachers at the classroom level, must still unavoidably be relied on.

Shortly after the 2013 convention, in three linked comments on an MLA Commons group formed for discussion of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Holquist, Miller, and MLA Second Vice President Margaret Ferguson elaborated on the concept of text complexity in literature and the overly narrow account of text complexity embedded in the ELA standards. As members of the MLA Working Group on K-16 Alliances, Holquist and Ferguson have re-posted slightly revised versions of their comments on the K-16 Alliances site on MLA Commons. Hillis Miller has given permission to bring his remarks along, so that the trio of related comments can be read and discussed together.

The three comments retain substantial interest. Most pertinently, they advance a view of text complexity, and the special complexities characteristic of literary works, that reaches far beyond the standards’ concern with comprehension and the matching of text comprehensibility to student skill level. Appealing to the complexity of narrative, Holquist calls attention to the importance of structure, and learning to apprehend the structuring devices of plot, for students gaining knowledge and understanding in their study of literature. Focusing on word, phrase, and sentence rather than plot, Ferguson appositely calls attention to texture, and learning to understand how word choice, word order, and phrasing create textures of metaphor that form the building blocks of the distinctive figurative worlds readers enter when reading literary works. Responding to Holquist and Ferguson, Miller provides a lucid account of why a too technically driven mode of implementing the ELA standards must intrude problematically into English classrooms and adds an appealing outline of six forms of literary complexity that goes a long way toward explaining why the study, teaching, and learning of literature require an appreciation of the special complexities of literary text that, Miller fears, goes too missing in the ELA standards documents.

The members of the MLA Working Group on K-16 Alliances hope these posts will be widely read. We welcome your comments.

Michael Holquist, “Narrative Complexity”

Margaret W. Ferguson, “Rhetorical Complexity: A Comment on Michael Holquist”

J. Hillis Miller, “Complexity in Literature: A Comment on Michael Holquist and Margaret Ferguson

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