Why Does Text Complexity Matter When Determining Growth Of Student Learning?

Text complexity is a hot topic for English teachers and literacy educators. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) elevated the role of text complexity in implementing standards and the accompanying documents provide distinct definitions of and measures for determining text complexity. While teacher judgment is still a critical consideration for determining a text’s complexity, other, more objective factors provide a greater likelihood of consistency across teachers, schools, programs, and texts. Effectively using all of this information about text complexity plays a critical role in supporting student growth.

First, an overall understanding of the CCSS for ELA is essential. The standards are organized into four strands for efficiency, but should not be addressed as stand-alone units. Literacy instruction and development is an iterative process that involves the interaction of reading to inform writing and discussion, talk to deepen understanding of ideas and knowledge, writing to process and reflect what has been learned. Underpinning all of these is the language strand. Students must understand the vocabulary of the learning situation whether it is common academic vocabulary or discipline-specific vocabulary. Each discipline presents ideas in different ways and moving between the rhetoric of each discipline is necessary. Every lesson, every assessment, every classroom experience should include and reflect the appropriate grade-level language standards.

Why is text complexity important?

Quantitative Measures: An objective foundation for analysis

The most popular quantitative measure of text complexity is, perhaps, Lexile scores. Lexile does not address the content or quality of the book, just the text difficulty. Lexile information aligns most distinctly to the CCSS Language standards as vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation and syntax are evaluated. Most published books commonly used in classrooms have been evaluated for a Lexile score. “Complexity bands” for grade levels help educators determine where the scores fall. These bands were updated after the publication of the CCSS to reflect appropriate grade level complexity. One stimulus for this update is a close examination of the language standards. In other words, the research that informed the development of the standards also influenced the updated thinking about grade level complexity. Starting an evaluation of text complexity with a quantitative score anchors the analysis and planning in the standards. Close analysis of the application of the language standards in the text often opens avenues for close reading and additional instruction.

What does the Lexile measure mean?   Lexile Titles Database    Lexile by Chapter Guides

Qualitative Measures: Deep reading of a text

The qualitative measures of text complexity include the structure, features, language, and meaning. While the sentences may be simple and the words familiar, the arrangement may elevate complexity. Texts that provide multiple perspectives with many characters or that move between time and place to tell multiple stories at once provide greater complexity than those that move chronologically from a single perspective. Topics, characters and events can all affect complexity at any grade level.

Quantitative Text Complexity Rubric

Reader and Task: Know your students and what you want them to do

Analyzing the qualitative and quantitative elements of a text may reveal areas of instruction aligned to specific learning goals. This doesn’t mean you have to teach every aspect of the text, but that you take advantage of instructional opportunities as they fit into your curriculum, the unit of study, your student’s strengths and needs, and other goals across the school year. For example, you may select a particular text for its content components (qualitative) although its complexity is below grade level. Close reading strategies, therefore, may be limited to a few key points in the text rather than across the entire text. You may also forgo vocabulary instruction within the text as it is largely unnecessary, and instead focus on developing academic vocabulary relevant to the text or topic. Remember, if you are an early elementary educator, you can read aloud texts with greater complexity than what your students can read on their own.  This begins to build their vocabulary and experience with increasingly complex syntax, language, structure and literary elements.

Considerations for Reader and Task analysis

Encouraging and documenting growth

Text complexity considerations may reveal a road map for instruction. There are several actions you may take once your analysis is complete:

  • Set priorities based on learning goals and what the text has to offer.
  • Create text sets that complement the anchor text and provide more instructional opportunities.
  • Make sure to include “stretch” texts – those that will require a reach for students to comprehend and analyze.
  • Provide scaffolding and supports for stretch texts to build strength in literacy skills.
  • Encourage independent reading of less complex texts to develop endurance or stamina.

State ELA and Literacy leaders have developed a website to support understanding of text complexity and effective implementation practices. Go to Navigating Text Complexity. Student Achievement Partners also provide a plethora of resources to support understanding of text complexity at Achieve the Core: Text Complexity.