A Beginner’s Guide to Text Complexity

by Sheena Hervey & Ryan Spencer

How is reading complex text like lifting weights? Just as it’s impossible to build muscle without weight or resistance, it’s impossible to build robust reading skills without reading challenging text.

– Shannon, Fisher & Frey

The New York State Next Generation English Language Arts Learning Standards (2017) outline the importance of teaching a range of texts, including focusing on the complexity of reading the words on the page, as well as the complexity of building language and knowledge.

The importance of increasing the complexity of texts that students read and the need for teachers to better understand what makes the texts challenging arose out of research that showed nearly half of the students graduating high school need some kind of remediation to cope with the reading required in college and during their careers.

As students move through grades, they are faced with texts that are increasingly longer and more complex in terms of the vocabulary used, sentence structure and text organization. In middle and high school, the texts present greater conceptual challenges, and may include more detailed graphic representations, demanding a much greater ability for the reader to synthesize information.

Central to instruction with complex texts is the notion that the teacher is able to match students’ texts and tasks to promote student learning. Teachers need to know whether students can independently read the range and complexity of grade level discipline-specific materials, and if not, what supports and strategies they need. To do this, teachers need to have information on:

  • Their students as readers
  • The complexity of the texts they are using with the students, i.e. supports and challenges
  • The nature of the tasks they set (how students are going to interact with the text) and the level of support the teachers will provide

This guide is designed to help teachers to determine the complexity of the texts they use.