July 1, 2016

Misunderstanding Text Complexity (Part 2)

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In this series, we have been working to identify common misunderstandings about text complexity that we fear may impact children’s reading growth and development. In yesterday’s post, we discussed the widely held belief that giving children text with much harder words addresses text complexity. Today we shift our focus to the primary grades and think about the popular notion that texts written for emergent readers can’t have complexity.

In discussing the relationship between hard words and text complexity, we pointed out that ideas are every bit as important as multisyllabic words. If you are a kindergarten or first grade teacher, this means that, rather than throwing away all of those level A-E books you’ve been collecting over the years in exchange for books with harder words, what you need to do is examine those early readers through the lens of, “What does this books give readers to think about?”

Let’s practice doing this together using Animals and Me, an early emergent reader “think book” available for free on this website. As you look through the pages you can see that the text is patterned (A (insert animal) is (insert action).You can (insert action). How is your (insert action) different?) Note also that there are many high frequency sight words presented in this text.  These are the elements of early emergent texts that we value and know that children need in order to practice and progress along the continuum of independence and proficiency. However, by virtue of asking questions like How is your swimming different? and How is your eating different?, children are given something to think about when they read. In order to answer these questions, children must look between the words and the illustrations and consider how the animal featured swims or eats in order to make a comparison.

So when it comes to text complexity for early emergent readers, the problem is not that we must force hard books on young children first learning to integrate print and understanding. Rather, the problem is finding texts that allow readers to do both. We encourage you to use the rubric we developed to help you evaluate the texts you have to support early emergent readers. We have worked with groups of teachers to evaluate their books for beginning readers and the exercise is always enlightening. Usually, about 25% of the books in a bookroom or classroom collection fall into category four, meeting demands for complexity. This confirms an important point that we keep reiterating: Text selection is everything.


  1. Jan & Kim…I quoted you in my blog post last week…about “text selection is everything!” It supported by text selection criteria for the Kindergarten Level A Guided Reading group I was teaching and modeling for a group of K teachers.


  2. In our “Iowa Core” version of page 22 with text set examples the * at the bottom of the page says:

    ” Children at the kindergarten and grade 1 levels should be expected to read texts independently that have been specifically written to correlate to their reading level and their word knowledge. Many of the titles listed above are meant to supplement carefully structured independent reading with books to read along with a teacher or that are read aloud to students to build knowledge and cultivate a joy in reading.”

    Kindergarten grade level #10 says:
    “10. Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding. (RL.K.10)”

    First grade level # 10 says:
    “10. With prompting and support, read prose and poetry of appropriate complexity for grade 1. (RL.1.10)”

    When I put those three pieces together, I see “prompting and support” and “texts written to support their reading level” and “appropriate complexity for grade 1 that may seem to be contradictory. But if I read the entire first grade level statement, there is absolutely NOTHING that says “emergent books” are gone.

    What do you see when you read those statements?

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      Our first reaction is that perhaps the authors of the Common Core didn’t fully understand either early emergent readers and the texts that are used to support early emergent readers. That in kindergarten they see children reading in group activities and not grade level complex text helps us to see where the idea that children should be presented with things that are too hard gained momentum. We’re not sure if you meant to do this, but this is the a-ha that is emerging. Likewise, that in first grade standard ten makes no mention of independent concerns us, too. There are many grade level complex texts that we would expect first graders to be able to manage independently by the end of the year!

      • I like the CCSS wording because it does NOT say that a reader will be retained in a grade level until he/she can master “x” texts so kindergartners and first graders can develop all of those basic foundational skills that are critical to later success.

        Because the “lexile levels” did not change for the emergent readers, I took this as a sign that previous locally set criteria would continue to be our K and 1st goals with that always vigilant “eye” on the expectations of the next level. (Fountas & Pinell, Reading Recovery, DRA levels, etc.). I will have to research to see if this way “my understanding or if it exists elsewhere in our state documents. I believe teachers have more flexibility with K-1 students with a whole lot less pressure to “pass a book level” and more opportunity to read for understanding.

        Teacher modeling in group activities will always be with a text that is a “STRETCH” to incentivize growth. Scaffolded instruction allows for a wide range of texts to be used with ALL emergent readers! And I agree that there are many texts that first graders should be able to manage independently by the end of the year but since I live in a state where kindergarten is NOT funded all day, every day, there has to be some flexibility!(different issue, but problematic for kids!)

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