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19 Feb 2014

Stretching Elementary Students in Complex Text: Why? How? When?

Heidi Ann Mesmer

Book Chapter
Submitted for Publication

To appear in E.H. Hiebert (Ed.) (March, 2014). Stamina, Silent Reading, & the Common Core State Standards. Santa Cruz, CA: TextProject.


“Stretching students in text? What does that mean? Put them on a rack?” a third-grade teacher mischievously commented at a recent professional development workshop. I had to bite my tongue because, in truth, I also find the phrase a little odd. As a teacher, I thought in terms of instructional level as I looked for reading materials that would challenge my students. But stretch texts? Never. That is, not until the arrival of the Common Core State Standards for the English Language Arts (CCSS/ELA) (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices [NGA Center] & Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2010) and their focus on providing students with opportunities to read increasingly complex texts over a grade span—and so “stretch” their reading abilities.

The CCSS/ELA goal is certainly worthy. However, it also raises numerous issues for teachers who are charged with selecting materials and providing instruction that will help students achieve that goal. In this chapter, I address several of these issues. I begin with a discussion of the meaning of text complexity, both how the CCSS/ELA developers define it, as well as how it is defined from other perspectives. I then discuss what constitutes stretch text and how the introduction of the stretch notion at the elementary school level will influence reader-text matching paradigms. Next, I present a series of rationales, both good and bad, that are used to bolster arguments to stretch students in text. In the last section of the chapter, I offer an extended discussion of the factors that may contribute to or inhibit students being stretched in text. In each section, I give attention to the gaps between what we know from the research literature and the type of information needed if students are going to reach the high aspirations of the CCSS.