A Beginner’s Guide to Text Complexity

by Sheena Hervey, Generation Ready

There is no magic fairy who is going to do this work for us. Under the Common Core, text will become increasingly complex. It’s the job of the teacher to figure out why its complex and what to do about it.

– Tim Shannon

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place an increasing emphasis on getting students to independently read the range and complexity of texts required to be college and career ready. 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. The research also showed that the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are and are not college ready is the ability to comprehend complex texts (ACT, 2006).

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 the Standards 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.

What do we mean by Text Complexity?

There is no exact science for determining the complexity of a text. Nor is there a single source of information that can accurately summarize the complexity of the text. Teachers need to use their professional judgment as they take a range of factors into consideration.

Triangular, three-part model for text complexity

1. Qualitative Measures

The qualitative measures of text complexity requires an informed judgment on the difficulty of the text by considering a range of factors. The Standards use purpose or levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, as well as the knowledge demands as measures of text difficulty.

2. Quantitative Measures

Quantitative measures of text complexity use factors such as sentence and word length and the frequency of unfamiliar words to calculate the difficulty of the text, assigning a single measure (grade level equivalent, number, Lexile etc). There are many formulas to calculate text difficulty and, while they provide a guide, the readability or difficulty level of a text can vary depending on which formulas or measures are used.

3. Reader and Task

The third measure looks at what the student brings to the text and the tasks that are assigned. Teachers need to use their knowledge of their students and texts to match texts to particular students and tasks.

How do we determine the complexity of texts?

The Common Core Standards raise the expectation for students in terms of the complexity of the texts they read. This means teachers need to be familiar with the level of complexity expected for their grades and how these compare to the complexity of the texts they use in their classes. Several considerations should guide teachers in selecting their texts.

Quantitative Measures

The qualitative measures provide a very useful guide in determining the complexity of texts. They are, however, not sufficient when used in isolation. Most publishers give grade band equivalents, or Lexile level, for their texts. A book with a Lexile of 1200 will be considerably more complex than one with a 770 Lexile. What the quantitative measure cannot give is the nature of the complexity.

Qualitative Factors for Describing Complexity

It is the qualitative measures that provide valuable information when making decisions about the complexity of the text and how it can best be used with students. The Common Core State Standards identify a range of factors that interact to contribute to the overall complexity. Rubrics have been developed for both literacy and informational texts that include descriptors for:

  • Layout
  • Purpose and meaning
  • Text structure
  • Language features
  • Knowledge demands

Not all descriptors in each category will necessarily occur together at each level of complexity. A text may have very simple vocabulary and short, simple sentences, but still be complex because of the subtle ideas that are expressed.

What about the Reader and the Task?

Qualitative and quantitative measures describe the complexity within the text. The third part of the diagram looks at students and how we expect them to interact with the text. In any class, there will be a range in the students’ ability to read complex texts. Teachers will need to use their professional judgment when making decisions about what texts to use and how they should be used. This professional judgment is dependent on the teachers:

  • Knowing their students as readers
  • Understanding the complexity of the texts
  • Being able to use a range of instructional approaches flexibly

Tasks, like texts, become more complex as students consider ideas and information in different ways. There is a “gear shift” from locating and evaluating topical information to locating, evaluating, and synthesizing information from several different sources.

Balancing the supports and  challenges

The more complex the text, the more support students will need. Students are introduced to increasingly complex texts throughout middle and high school. This is done through a gradual release of responsibility where complex texts are introduced in the most supportive context through reading to students and shared reading.

Gradual Release of responsibility chart

Students must actively engage with complex texts in order to comprehend what they are reading. This requires commitment and risk taking on the part of the reader. Students will not put this amount of effort into texts that are dull and uninteresting or where they see no value in the tasks assigned.

Using Rubrics to Identify Text Complexity

The challenge for teachers dealing with Standard 10 (CCSS) is determining the complexity of a text and deciding what strategies and supports students will need to successfully read the text. While publishers often give recommended grade levels, or lexile levels, for texts, these are insufficient when used in isolation. Teachers still need to make decisions about the nature of the complexity of the texts they are using. While many teachers can tell that a text is complex, describing precisely what makes it complex is much more difficult. The rubrics were designed to support teachers in:

  • Developing a common language to describe and talk about texts
  • Identifying the nature of the complexity of texts by using the indicators

The Standards outline the qualitative factors and professional judgment that need to be used to match texts and tasks to readers. Currently, there are no quantitative measures that capture all of the elements that make a text easy or challenging to read (CCSS). The rubric uses the factors and also includes the layout of the text.

Layout of the text. It is the look and layout of the text that students react to first. Small, closely packed, uninterrupted text will put many readers off. The size of the font, layout of the text, use of illustrations, graphics, glossaries and signposting within the text can provide supports or challenges for readers, depending on how they are used.

Purpose of informational texts and meaning in literary texts. Informational texts that have the single purpose of conveying factual information are going to be easier to read than texts that require examining or evaluating theoretical and contested information. In literary text, content that has several levels and competing elements of meaning pose challenges for students to identify, separate and interpret the context, compared to texts with only one level of meaning that is explicitly stated. Many literacy texts have obvious themes, while others have implicit, subtle, often ambiguous themes that are revealed over the entirety of the text.

Text structure. Text structure takes into account how the ideas are organized. Texts that are chronological tend to be less complex than those that are non linear. Literary texts, that provide challenges for readers are often intricately organized in regard to elements such as a narrative viewpoint, time shifts, multiple characters, storylines, and complex detail.

Language features. Language features include vocabulary used, the sentence structure, and the style used by the writer. Informational texts that have complex sentences, with dense conceptual content, high nominalization, and includes extensive academic vocabulary, will be far more difficult to read than texts with simple sentences, and familiar vocabulary. In literary texts, the extensive use of figurative or literary language such as metaphors, analogies, and connotative language will add to the complexity of a text.

Knowledge demands. The prior knowledge that a reader brings to the text is a very important consideration when selecting texts. Not all descriptors in each criteria will necessarily occur together at each level of complexity. A text may have very simple vocabulary and short simple sentences, yet still be complex because the ideas expressed are subtle and require sophistication on the part of the reader. Two rubrics have been developed to support teachers: one for literary texts and one for informational texts.

Large table showing text complexity from simple to complex

The organization of the text is intricate with regard to elements such as narrative viewpoint, time shifts, multiple characters, storylines and detail Connections among events or ideas are implicit or subtle throughout the text Includes sustained complex text types and hybrid or non-linear texts.

By using a rubric, it is easy to see where the complexity of the text lies. If we know what aspects of the text are likely to be challenging for students, decisions can be made about the suitability of a text and what supports students may need to read it successfully.

The Nature of Complexity Matters

A student’s ability to read complex text can vary greatly depending on the type of text they are reading. Students who can easily read the text used in ELA may struggle with a science text of a similar level of difficulty. Research shows that students do not automatically transfer strategies introduced in ELA to reading in other areas. More importantly, the way texts are read differs across the discipline areas, and strategies used to help comprehend narrative in ELA may not work in science and social studies. To show the difference, we have used two texts with similar lexile levels (870-900), both recommended as suitable for grade 6 students.

Text One: Shells, a short story by Cynthia Rylant in Every Living Thing

This text would be an easy “read” for most 6th graders since the vocabulary and language are familiar. Dialog is used to help move the story along but it is easy to follow. The challenge comes in the Purpose and Meaning traits of the rubric. The text has several levels of meaning and requires the reader to make inferences as they read. It is not until the end of the text that the significance of the characters’ actions becomes clear.

To read this text with understanding, students would need to use the following comprehension strategies in an integrated way:

  • Students need to use their background knowledge and information from the text to form tentative theories/inferences about the significance of events
  • This is a short story and understanding story structure (problem/solution) is necessary to understand that Michael and his Aunts’ relationship changed at the end
  • Students need to generate questions as they read, both to delve more deeply into the text and to critically reflect on what they have read

Because the text does not explicitly explain the analogy between the hermit crab finding a better-fitting shell and the positive change in the relationship between Michael and his aunt students will need to draw their own conclusions.

Cover of Every Living Thing collection of stories
Text complexity rubric for Shells

Text Two: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

This text highlights the importance of not relying solely on quantitative measures. The Lexile level is 730 L. This would suggest the book is suitable for third and fourth grade students, yet it is an exemplar for grades 9-10 in the Standards. The complexity becomes evident when the qualitative measures are used. Students are likely to be challenged because of:

  • The historical setting
  • The text is figurative with extensive use of metaphors, including the personification of death itself
  • The text is a very long – 552 pages
  • The innovative stylistic techniques that are used. The most obvious is the narrator Death’s use of boldface text to relay certain information
  • The multiple, intertwining themes
Highlighted text outlining various complexity elements
Text complexity Rubric for The Book Thief

Text Three: Thinking about Physics While Scared to Death (on a Falling Roller Coaster), by Jearl Walker

Roundabout: Readings from the Amateur Scientist in Scientific American. New York: Scientific American (1985). Exemplar Text for Grades 9-10 Text Complexity Band (Appendix B CCSS)

Highlighted page of Article from Thinking about Physics while scared to death

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level puts the readability at the 8th grade level.

The language structure of this text is relatively straightforward; however, the complexity lies in the domain-specific vocabulary, complex-embedded sentences and the difficulty of the ideas being explained.

Students are likely to be challenged because of:

  • The domain-specific vocabulary
  • The knowledge demands of the physics concepts of motion and force
  • Small, densely packed print
  • The nominalization
  • The minimal use of diagrams, e.g. to show directions of forces
Rubric for Thinking About Physics

Planning for Support

Tasks, like texts, become more complex as students think about ideas and information in different ways. When considering the complexity of the text, teachers need to take into account the tasks they set, as well as their knowledge of their students as readers.

When introducing texts, teachers need to consider the challenges in the text and the strategies students need.

Professional Practice Description