July 25, 2016

Text Complexity 101

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The Common Core sets in motion many new trends, including a focus on text complexity. This focus drives a shift toward raising proficiency by engaging students in interactions with “lots of complex texts” that “offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.” (Appendix A, p. 4)

Appendix A suggests that we measure text complexity by considering quantitative text variables, qualitative text variables, and individual reader/task variables (which may be qualitative or quantitative).


Text Complexity -- Common Core


The quantitative measure involves an algorithm that estimates a text’s readability based on factors such as word, sentence, and text length.  Quantitative measures are based on the idea that a sentence with many long words, such as “The wayward canine lopes serendipitously toward his new owner,” is far more difficult to understand than “The dog runs.” The authors of the Common Core have included the chart below to guide our understanding of quantitative measures of text complexity, and schools, districts, and publishers have been quick to label books with their respective numbers.


Lexile Chart -- Common Core State Standards




What quantitative measures do not account for, however, are qualitative factors like text structure, language choice, and explicit vs. implicit meanings.  While “The dog runs.”  and “The dog pines.” are the same quantitatively in terms of sentence length, sentence structure, and number of syllables, “pines” is a more sophisticated word that gives readers something to think about. Looking at text qualitatively allows us to consider word choice as well as how the text with the line “The dog pines,” is organized: Does it occur within a flashback?  Is it part of an informational text about dogs?  Or is it the middle part of a traditional, narrative structure?


Reader and task measures recognize that students’ reading proficiencies do not all progress at the same rate.  They take into account that children bring different experiences to text that impact their motivation for reading and background knowledge for understanding what is written on the page. Reader/task variables encourage teachers to consider the needs of individuals readers. Might the child who has a pet dog be more eager to read and better understand “the dog pines” than the child who lives in a home with no pets? This is not to say, however, that children who have no pets should never read, “The dog pines,” as extending beyond our own experiences gives us “new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.”

As for task considerations, will the reader encounter this text during partner reading or shared reading, supported by a more proficient counterpart?  Is this a text for a child to dig into with virtually no support?  Or is it for graphing fluency progress?  Each instructional context carries its own text considerations.

With the drive to label everything with lexile levels, the common core’s three part model is a reminder that text complexity is more than just a quantitative measure.  The question we must ask now is this: How well are we integrating quantitative measures with qualitative and individual reader variables to make informed decisions as we select text for instruction?

And that’s the question we’ll explore in tomorrow’s post, Lost in Translation.



Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies,
Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of terms. Retrieved from: http://www.corestandards.org/assets/


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  2. Jan,
    You know I’m a huge fan of yours and feel especially kin to you since you personally commented on my “Bee Opinionated” blog post where we trained the staff in how to engage in higher levels of conversations during guided reading based on your Preventing Misguided Reading text. Here is a link to our ppt from that day…http://www.slideshare.net/hellojenjones/thinking-and-discussing-at-higher-levels-in-the-literacy-block
    Also, I’ve been presenting the new CCSS for ELA to our K-5 staff. The staff is particularly interested on how the new text complexity bands align with our previous Bee Opinionated training and the GR philosophies shared via your PMR book. Without spending hours on the technical jargon of Text Complexity and CCSS Appendix document, I’ve explained that the teacher’s role in a PMR guided reading lesson (where students would most likely be reading in the independent reading range at 96% to 98% accuracy) would be lending minimal instructional support, and when needed to “get in and get out” as to leave most of the work, what there is to do, up to the student. Then, to explain the teacher’s role in supporting students reading complex texts, a teacher’s role would be to help students needing all levels of support to access, read and comprehend complex texts with maximum support….to “stretch” them and see what they can do with more support than less support. Would you agree with this “in a nutshell” explanation? I’m really wondering if you have a “Text Complexity position statement” that is written in teacher friendly language that really spells out the implication for regular classroom teachers and daily literacy instruction. Thank you for your time! -Jennifer Jones

    • Hi Jennifer! In thinking about your “in a nutshell” explanation, I like it, especially the part about stretching the reader. Clearly grade level complex text is going to be hard for some students but I think that it’s become a common teaching practice to rush in with our safety nets and catch them before there’s even time to get a scrape. We’re coming to realize through our own experiences working with students using complex text that floundering a bit can have huge benefits especially when the teacher is responsive and swoops in just when it approaches the point of way too difficult. It’s all about the scaffolding.

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