As we think about text complexity, we keep going back to these questions: Does the book offer readers a lot to think about? Something to figure out? Something that pulls them back into the text?
In many conversations about text complexity there seems to be some confusion about print elements (decoding work) vs. “story” elements (comprehension work). Complexity is evolving as a synonym for word difficulty, which sells complexity short. There exists a pervasive assumption that, if children sound as though the text is hard to read, then it is sufficiently complex. At the risk of being labeled heretical, we suggest that students can sound fluent even when they are faced with complex meaning work.
The complexity of a text can be explored along four dimensions. A single text may have one or multiple dimensions, including 1) the knowledge content the text relays, 2) the profound ideas it illuminates, 3) the organizing structure that frames it, and/or 4) the craft the writer employs. While the difficulty of the words is part of complexity considerations, it is possible to have a complex text which is relatively easy for students to decode, or a simple text with words that are difficult to decode. While the print demands are a piece of the complexity puzzle, there are other considerations that are equally important (and often, even more important).
Here are examples of each of the dimensions of text complexity as we think of them. We chose older, “classic” text examples because they are familiar to most, and we added contemporary texts as counterpoints. None of these titles is intended to be an “exemplar,” rather they are simply examples for you to consider. You will have your own examples in each of these categories.
Complexity of knowledge: The primary purpose of the text is to communicate information.
Classic Example: Destination: Jupiter by Seymour Simon
Contemporary Example: Marvels in the Muck: Life in the Salt Marshes by Doug Wechsler
Complexity of ideas: The ideas in the book communicate something substantive or connected to a universal theme.
Classic Example: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Contemporary Example: Home of the Brave by Allen Say
Complexity of structure: The way the book is organized requires readers to stop and think.
Classic Example: The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash by Trinka Hakes Noble
Contemporary Example: Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein
Complexity of craft: The language, vocabulary, or sentence structure of the text demand attention. The author may employ devices, such as metaphor or alliteration, which make the meaning of the text more subtle.
Classic Example: Wynken, Blynken, and Nod by Eugene W. Field
Contemporary Example: WonTon: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw
These “categories” are not categorical, i.e. most complex titles will be complex in more than one dimension. For example, Can We Save the Tiger? is a complex, contemporary, non-fiction, persuasive text. It has an elegant structure, engaging voice, and sophisticated vocabulary. Whether the words are hard for a student or not will depend on the student, but we would share this complex text with students from a range of elementary grades, scaffolding it in read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, or independent reading, depending on the needs of the group. Selecting a complex text is much more complex than picking out a book in which students struggle with the words!