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"Is this novel REALLY Level 1?" - Which factors contribute to text complexity?

May 16, 2018

Ah, requisition season. Thousands of teachers around the country are making plans for next year and laying claim to coveted budget dollars to get the resources that they need for next year’s students. Perhaps you find yourself writing a budget proposal for the coming school year. Perhaps your deadline to submit the budget is...FRIDAY! Perhaps you know that you would like to read a novel with your classes next year, but with the deadline so close, you simply don’t have time to buy a single copy of every novel that your classes could read and preview them in order to decide of which title you need 35 copies and a Teacher’s Guide. Most of my readers are probably familiar, at least in name, with Mira Canion. Mira has written many novels for language learners and she presents to teachers around the country on reading comprehension, interactive input, and novels in the world language classroom. Whenever Mira and I are together talking about teaching language, one topic that always seems to come up is text selection. In our experience, it seems that there is a general lack of clarity surrounding the question, “Who can understand a given novel with reasonable ease?” With ever more new authors bringing novels to print and ever more teachers looking for novels to use in class, there are questions on both ends. What characteristics can teachers look for to know whether their students will be able to understand a text that the teacher wants to use? What information can authors provide to their potential readers to help them know if their novel is a good fit? Mira and I want to help you evaluate novels for your classes with confidence, and to that end we will be publishing a series of three posts offering some insight on the topic:

  1. “Is this text REALLY Level 1?” / Which factors contribute to text complexity?
  2. “Are my kids ready to read this novel?” / The role of background knowledge
  3. “How many words are in this novel, anyway?” / In search of an standard for presenting word counts.

Welcome to the first post in the series, “Is this text REALLY Level 1?”. How can a language teacher know whether or not their students are ready to read a novel in Level 1? What novels are appropriate for Level 1 in Spanish class? The essential question that we will be addressing in this post is:

Which factors contribute to text complexity?

Vocabulary and background knowledge are the two major forces that determine reading comprehension rates. All of the things that we are going to discuss in this post ultimately fit into one of those two categories. Since both of us (Martina & Mira) have a background primarily teaching Spanish to students with a common first language (English), we will be speaking through that lens. We hope that our readers that speak and teach other languages will comment with the connections and departures that they see between the ideas that we share and their own language experience! In this post, Mira and I are going to talk about nine different factors to examine when considering how complex a text is. In particular, we want to help you learn to identify texts that are NOT complex--texts that could be good fits for Level 1. Nine different factors is a LOT--and we have a lot to say! To help you organize and apply these ideas, we have created this handy dandy checklist. The items listed on the left are characteristic of more simple texts, and the items listed on the right are characteristic of more complex texts. If you are looking for a Level 1 text, read it with this checklist in hand. If most of your check marks are in the left-hand column, voilà ! You may just have yourself a good fit for Level 1. Use this checklist to help you determine whether a particular text is appropriate for Level 1 or not. Great for use in language classes! Now, on to the nitty gritty!


FACTOR #1: THE USE OF PAST TENSES When a novel is written primarily in the past tense, its text complexity is instantly higher than that of a text written primarily in the present tense. Readers must juggle the past events with temporal markers (context clues like “yesterday, last week, now, today) and verb forms. As much as “había llegado, llegó, llegaste, llegó, llegas, has llegado, etc.” are similar and obviously connected, they are still confusing to a language learner. Context helps give meaning to the subtle differences of the verb conjugations, but it is still more of a cognitive load on the reader than a straight present tense reading. Using only present tenses forces an author keep the storyline simple and chronological with no flashbacks. (Note: we are not talking about using the present tense when a past tense should be used; we are talking about constructing the plot such that only the present tense should be used to tell the story.) A chronological narrative helps the reader mentally organize the storyline and make meaning of the text. Even something as subtle as referencing things that happened in the past is enough to complicate comprehension. I (Martina) experienced this when reading Esperanza with my students, and so when we reached Chapter Six (which referenced past events), I designed an activity specifically to help students organize the timeline of the chapter. If you look at this example FACTOR #2: SENTENCE LENGTH The longer the sentence, the harder a brain must work to process it. A period marks the end of a thought; it indicates that a complete idea has been expressed and thus is ready for processing. As a reader, until we reach that period, all of the information in the sentence is building...building...building… Short sentences allow language learners time to process information. Have you ever had the experience of reading a paragraph and realizing that you had no idea what it was talking about, even though you understood it during the process of reading? A longer sentence requires the reader to store more information in her working memory to make meaning of the text.  If you are looking for a very easy read, look for short, choppy sentences--even though as a fluent reader of the language, you will not prefer the style! Remember--you aren’t choosing a novel for you--you’re choosing one for your students! FACTOR #3: COMPOUND SENTENCES WITH CONNECTOR WORDS Here are two examples to compare; both from Capibara con botas:

“Carlos está feliz. Quiere hablar con la tortuga grande. Está feliz porque tiene botas especiales.”  “Los capibaras no pueden escapar porque el lago no tiene mucha agua.”

The first example uses shorter sentences. “Carlos is happy. He wants to talk with the giant turtle. He is happy because he has special boots.” The last sentence connects Carlos’ happiness with having boots. The second example is more complex. “The capybaras cannot escape because the lake does not have much water.” It is a longer sentence than the first example, but there is more to it than just length. In the second example, background knowledge is required to understand the sentence fully. Animal behavior, specially how capybaras defend themselves, is critical to understanding that without water in the lake, capybaras are not able to dive into the water and escape their predators. The sentence also has two negatives which often trips up the best of readers. Let's look at this page from the beginning of La Vampirata: [caption id="attachment_12927" align="alignnone" width="2722"]La Vampirata is a novel written for Spanish language learners. With attention to text complexity, it is appropriate for students in Spanish 2 or 3. Set deep in the dense Colombian jungle, a mysterious emerald has been plundered by an odd band of backstabbing pirates, and Sara Gomez will find herself tangled up in the middle of it all![/caption] Right off the bat, we see all three of the first factors at play: the use of past tenses, long sentences, and compound sentences with connector words. We can tell from the start that this novel will present challenges to readers in Level 1...and we still have six more factors to consider!! Let's continue. FACTOR #4: TOPIC Is the novel a narrative within a familiar story structure? If so, your students will likely be able to interpret the text without taking time to first build background knowledge. Alternatively, does the plot hinge on an informational topic such as the environment, immigration, a sport, or practices and beliefs not typical in your students’ primary culture? Without background knowledge, simple vocabulary will not suffice in guiding the reader to interpret the text. Even for light-hearted narratives, like Capibara con botas, topical background knowledge plays a role in comprehension. Do readers know what a capybara is before they read the book? Do they know anything about the Amazon? What do they know about predators and prey? Consider the ways in which Mira strategically builds topical background knowledge in the suggested pre-reading activities from the Teacher’s Guide for Capibara con botas: Capibara con botas is a light-hearted narrative set in the Amazon jungle, and using the lesson plans from the Teacher's Guide will help your students to understand and enjoy it to its fullest! FACTOR #5: TEXT STRUCTURE But background knowledge encompasses more than topic: familiarity with text structure also fits into the category of background knowledge. Background knowledge involves how you understand grammar and how you read dialogue. It has to do with the topic, and it also has to do with also text structure. Note this passage and introduction of the conflict in El escape cubano:

–Quiero escaparme. –Yordani, ¡no! ¿Quieres ir a prisión? –responde mi mamá.

In a novel, dialogue is a beautiful thing!! It serves to bring the story to life, to awaken emotion, and to break up the narrative. In this example, the character’s name is embedded in the dialogue. That requires background knowledge of how dialogue works and how to sort out characters: when students see a name appear in dialogue, do they know how to tell whether it is a person that is part of the conversation or someone being mentioned by those characters that are involved in the conversation? Dialogue also requires that the reader keep track of who is talking using markers in verbs as well as temporal clues. Having read several books with the Spanish dialogue markers helps with reading comprehension, and in preparation to read a ‘first’ novel, it is helpful for students to read short stories and articles that contain dialogue markers as well. This passage also raises the issue of the setting. When Yordani says that he wants to escape, that carries different meaning to a student that is familiar with Cuba’s political history and restrictions on travel to other countries than it will to a student that knows nothing about Cuba. Why does Yordani use the word escape? That makes it sound like it is illegal. Then his wife says he might go to jail. Wait? What is the reader missing? Background knowledge of Cuba allows the reader to infer vital information about the plot. Authors do not include all the information needed to make sense of the text--readers infer lots of information from the text and from its structure. It is critical that beginning language learners understand the vocabulary of a text in order to increase their ability to make inferences throughout the text. Let's look at the first page from El escape cubano, which contains the exchange quoted above: [caption id="attachment_12920" align="alignnone" width="2722"]In a matter of minutes, Miguel’s happiness changes to gripping fear when he overhears his parents fighting about escaping from Cuba on a raft. And his dad plans to take him along. He has heard the stories about the dangerous escape: swift currents, giant waves, sharks and the pitch black nights. That is why Miguel is determined to stay in Cuba, but time is not on his side. An easy Spanish reader containing just 140 new vocabulary words and English-Spanish cognates. Full glossary of all vocabulary words is included. 3500 total words. In a matter of minutes, Miguel’s happiness changes to gripping fear when he overhears his parents fighting about escaping from Cuba on a raft.[/caption] In addition to the sentence complexity and text structure, there are some more factors at play that make El escape cubano a simple text, and one that could be a good fit for Level 1. We press on! FACTOR #6: DENSITY OF VOCABULARY  A 1000 word text with 500 unique words is much more complex than a 1000 word text with 50 unique words. Breadth of vocabulary (a wide range of vocabulary) within a text, and even within a chapter, makes it hard for the beginning learner to make meaning of the text. This is especially true if there are an abundance of new words or vaguely familiar words for which the reader is not immediately able to link meaning. More than simply a text’s range of vocabulary, the number of instances that each of those discrete items is repeated throughout the text plays a role in text complexity. When a reader encounters the same word many times across the novel--and especially within a text segment (a paragraph, a page, a chapter)--the meaning of the word is solidified in the reader’s head. In particular, this is helpful when a word makes its first appearance. Novels that are easier for language learners to comprehend gradually introduce new words into the text instead of using all of them beginning in Chapter 1. If you teach beginning language learners, look for novels in which there are only several new, key words used for the first time in each chapter, and notice how often those words are recycled throughout that chapter and moving forward into the rest of the text. Here is a list of novels that have been written for Spanish language learners with attention to density of vocabulary (click here to open in new tab): [googleapps domain="docs" dir="spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vRksWkgvvvvVTxYRVBO6hbzeODq7j3DcqzuXZRE8QmR8AJ5gt6fiatlRrP1ksDBleZcYx9Sg4pmRYQb/pubhtml" query="widget=true&headers=false" /] Notice the "Level" column: currently, the level listed was suggested by the author or publisher, and the lack of an objective manner for recommending Level is what prompted us to write this post. Carol Gaab wrote yesterday on the CI Peek blog about how Fluency Matters levels their readers, and is is largely in line with what we are proposing in this post. We will be revising the Level for each novel listed as we have time to run through the Checklist with each one! To receive notifications of newly published novels and student reviews of novels, please follow the CI Reading blog, managed by Mike Peto. FACTOR #7: SYNTAX The most simple, easy-to-understand sentences follow this format:

subject - verb - other sentence elements

When a sentence strays from that format, the complexity increases. In Spanish, the verb ending carries information about the subject. For that reason, it is often unnecessary to use a subject pronoun when writing in Spanish. In fact, always explicitly stating a subject is very unnatural in Spanish and not preferred. However, for an emerging reader, seeing a subject at the beginning of a sentence makes that sentence easier to understand. This applies not only to sentences in which the subject pronoun is omitted; it applies to questions (which often invert the subject and the verb) and stylistic choices which also allow for variance in subject placement. As you consider options for your very beginning students, notice how frequently sentences do not begin with a subject. FACTOR #8: WORDS WITH MULTIPLE MEANINGS In Spanish, as in nearly every language, many words carry differences in meaning depending on context. Sometimes, the differences in meaning are subtle; other times, profound. Take this example with the verb “piensa”:

No piensa en ella. - He doesn’t think about her. No piensa ir - He’s not planning to go

In the second sentence, if a student tries to translate it literally using a familiar use of piensa, “thinks”, the sentence reads like this: “He doesn’t think to go”. Okay--maybe a student can make sense of that; but it will take some processing time. When a text employs multiple, disparate uses of the same word, it contributes to text complexity. Readers must sort through the possible meanings of a word in order to interpret the text. The most simple texts limit the ways in which single words are used so that their meaning is consistent throughout the text.  FACTOR #9: VISUAL CUES Illustrations, cognates, and graphics that contain formatted text (news clippings, police reports, text messages) are all examples of visual cues. Visual cues provide support to readers that helps them link meaning. However--visual cues are not a 1:1 match for linking meaning. While they will boost comprehension and support most readers, they leave room for misinterpretation in some instances, and in others their value is lost altogether. Take cognates, for example: resourceful readers know can recognize cognates and use them to boost comprehension. But let’s be real--not all of our students are resourceful readers! And even when they are, they will not recognize all cognates. Nonetheless, most readers will benefit from the judicious use of cognates in a text. This is especially true when their teacher has taken the time to teach and practice the skill of interpreting cognates! In the case of illustrations, students might over-rely on the illustration to make meaning from the page, and ignore portions of the text altogether. Other times, readers will infer extra or erroneous information from the illustration that misleads their interpretation of the text. When considering the visual cues that are available to the reader in a text, think about your students’ literacy in L1 and also how closely any illustrations in the text match the action. Okay, phew! That was a lot. Allow us to help you process all of that as we look at a few examples together. First, let’s look at Rival. Rival is set in Spain in 1212, with the epic Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa looming. With a call of duty and a sense of holy devotion, Knight Templar Pedro Vega Garcia--whose secrets run deeper than his battle scars--is eager to meet his rivals. However, his immediate challenge just may be his 16-year-old niece Clara and her insatiable curiosity about Islamic and Arabic cultures. Belonging to the genre of language learner literature, this is an easy Spanish reader containing just 270 new vocabulary words and many English-Spanish cognates. Rival_ca1_sample_web Plot Summary: Tension is mounting. Despite 500 years of the Spanish Reconquista, Christian Kings have managed to recapture only two-thirds of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims. When Muslim leader Al-Nasir starts amassing troops from Africa, Christians declare a crusade to recruit and gather military forces in Toledo. Based on examining just this one page with our checklist in hand, we do NOT recommend reading Rival with your students in a Level 1 Spanish class. Rival references multiple time frames and topical knowledge (Knights Templar, anyone?), all in beautifully crafted, complex sentences. Rival is a great novel--just not for Level 1. Now, let’s look at another novel: one of my (Martina’s) favorites: Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso. Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica is on display at the 1937 International Exposition. Both sides of the Spanish Civil War quickly realize that the painting contains clues to the whereabouts of the supernatural Spear of Destiny. Its occult power can change the outcome of the Civil War, just as it has done in other battles throughout history.  Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso is an easy Spanish reader containing just 100 new vocabulary words and many English-Spanish cognates. Plot Summary: Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica is on display at the 1937 International Exposition. Both sides of the Spanish Civil War quickly realize that the painting contains clues to the whereabouts of the supernatural Spear of Destiny. Its occult power can change the outcome of the Civil War, just as it has done in other battles throughout history. As Paula’s imagination begins to decipher the hidden symbols, Francisco Franco’s secret agents are not far behind her. They are ready to capture the Spear at the most opportune moment, convinced that impulsive Paula will betray her quest for the Spear. Based on our checklist, we are not surprised that many teachers use Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso with success in their Level 1 classes. I (Martina) got so sick of circling cognates in the graphic that I gave up after two paragraphs. Mira suggested that perhaps I should have circled the words that weren’t cognates. But as we said above, the mere presence of cognates is not enough. For cognates to scaffold comprehension to the fullest extent possible, they must be chosen strategically and--like all keywords-- be repeated frequently. The cognates used on this page are primarily cognates that even unskilled readers will recognize. They are among the most obvious cognates available to Spanish learners that speak English. Like the key verbs (tener, estar, and visitar--which is also an obvious cognate), students have repeated exposures to each cognate in a very short passage. And there you have it. When you consider the nine factors that we have laid out in this post and work from our checklist for text complexity, you will be able to select texts with confidence that are appropriate for your Level 1 classes. But of course, this is only the beginning of the conversation--we want to hear from you! Which factors on this list were new to you? Which factors do you disagree as contributors to text complexity? Which do you think will be most helpful in selecting a text for your classes? Confidently selecting a novel that could be a good fit for your students is only the first step in the process of text selection. Stay tuned for more on the topic in Post #2: “Are my kids ready to read this novel?”! Wondering if a given text is an appropriate challenge for your language students? Understand the factors that contribute to text complexity.

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