One of the interesting things you notice if you’ve been in education a long time is how the language we use shows how we have shifted our thinking.

I couldn’t help noticing a few years back when I was having a discussion with colleagues about literature that I was the only one referring to “books” instead of “texts.”  There was something definitely too clinical to me about calling a book a “text.” “Text” reminded me of “textbook” and a whole slew of other connotations–objective, uniform, thick, heavy, boring, having an editorial board vs. the passion of a single writer, etc.  I couldn’t–and still can’t–bring myself to make the switch. Farenheit 451 is a book by Ray Bradbury for me, not a “science fiction text.”

I think the shift originated as a result of the Deconstructivist movement in literature that focused on separating the writing from the writer, the text from its author. “The Death of the Author,”  by Roland Barthes, was one of the essays I heard about associated with ideas of that movement.

“Complex texts” is an important term for educators today as it is the terminology used by the writers of the Common Core Curricula—our new national curriculum (with the exception of a couple of states). North Carolina, my home state, has adopted the curriculum, so we are all struggling with understanding it.

I started this post with the idea that “complex texts” is just an updated name for the same set of things we used to call classic books. But I think any shift in language is, or results in, some shift in thought.

What is the difference?

One difference is the continued separation of author from text. “Text” also has connotations that may to appeal some educators, theorists, and curriculum writers, as mentioned above.

“Text” also is a term that might denote a book, but could also denote only segments of a work or a condensed version of a work. So often now, whole books are not used in lessons. They take too much time so “mini-lessons” are preferred. It is therefore easier just to refer to the “text” we are using; we don’t have to be bound to a particular author, an entire work, or even the original form of the work.

“Text” does not distinguish between genres of writing, either. A “text” might be a poem, a part of a poem, fiction, nonfiction. I even took a graduate class in which we called any cultural artifact a text—photos, drawings, or a cupie doll. Since we are moving toward reading much more nonfiction than fiction in the Language Arts curriculum with Common Core, using “texts” is a convenient referent for all the printed content we use in class.

The denotation of “text” is therefore different from “book” as well as the connotation. Books were just whole books, usually by a single author.  “Texts” are books, condensed books, passages from books, a poem, maybe even a picture or film to some.

Common Core writers have added the adjective “complex” to the term, and that is a good thing, in my view.  It harkens back to the classic novel, the great works, the works with significant content and layers of meaning. Using “text” alone meant there was no control on quality any longer—or completeness, or genre, or even originality.