This blog post has been updated from its original version posted in 2013.
What makes a text complex? Is it the structure? Is it sentence length? Is it student motivation? Text complexity takes into account all of these characteristics and more. If we know that one goal is to have our students reading and comprehending complex texts for college and career readiness (CCR), then what can we do to help them meet the demand of the texts they will encounter in first year college courses or workforce training programs? In Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards, the Standards’ Model of Text Complexity explains how quantitative dimensions, qualitative dimensions, and reader and task considerations are all crucial in determining if a text’s complexity suitably matches students.
Looking quantitatively, The Lexile® Framework for Reading provides text ranges that correlate to grades and supply a range in which students should be reading at each grade level in order to reach the 1300 Lexile (L) students will encounter in postsecondary college and career reading experiences. In addition, as part of Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards, the following figure notes the Lexile ranges aligned to college and career readiness:
However, quantitative measure alone is not sufficient to measure a text’s complexity. Suppose students will be asked to read Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Quantitatively, it measures with a 770L because of its semantic difficulty (word frequency) and syntactic complexity (sentence length). These two factors measure the text at the high end of the 2-3 grade band and at the low end of the 4-5 grade band. However, traditionally, students are introduced to this text much later and for good reason. Since its publication, new research was added to the appendix of the Common Core for English Language Arts and Literacy that recommends when evaluating narrative fiction choices for students in grades 6 and above, the teacher should sometimes, depending on the text itself, give preference to qualitative measures. Qualitatively, narrative fiction choices are often complex because of dimensions such as multiple levels of meaning, an implicit purpose, figurative and ironic language, and complex knowledge demands. For instance, while Lord of the Flies has a 770L, the theme of civilization versus savagery may be too multifaceted for 2nd to 5th graders because of the readers’ lack of life experiences. Hence, it is important to pay attention to more than just a text’s quantitative measure when considering text complexity.
A third dimension that is central when considering a text’s complexity, is to look closely at the tasks assigned to the reading. Sarah Brown Wessling, a National Teacher of the Year, speaks to this point in the Teaching Channel webinar Simplifying Text Complexity. She asks us to consider how to take a complex task and scaffold it with a suitable text choice. A less complex text may be appropriate in the beginning stages of practice and then the text may advance as students become more adept at the skill. It is critical teachers are intentionally planning for learning opportunities that allow students to put into practice complex thinking and conceptual skills with accessible texts. Thinking about the purpose and understanding our students will help to match tasks and texts.
By paying attention to quantitative dimensions, qualitative dimensions, and reader and task, students will have the opportunity to grapple, with appropriate scaffolding, with complex texts. As a result, students will graduate high school and be prepared for postsecondary college and career experiences.
National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. (2014). National Core Arts Standards: A Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning. Retrieved from http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/sites/default/files/NCCAS%20%20Co nceptual%20Framework_0.pdf
Prepare for College & Careers. (2019, November 28). Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://lexile.com/parents-students/measuring-growth-lexile-measures/college-and-career-trajectory/
Simplifying Text Complexity. (2018, September 07). Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://learn.teachingchannel.com/video/simplifying-text-complexity
Supplemental Information for Appendix A of the Common Core … (n.d.). Retrieved January 11, 2021, from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/E0813_Appendix_A_New_Research_on_Text_Complexity.pdf