Revisiting text complexity


By Teresa Rogers

With implementation of the Kentucky Academic Standards in 2009, grade-level reading bands shifted to reflect the higher expectations needed to prepare students for college and careers. Along came new conversations and resources, defining text complexity.

The model below illustrates the three components that constitute text complexity – qualitative, quantitative, and reader and task considerations. Each of these dimensions are important to consider when making instructional decisions. Let’s look at each of these a bit closer.

Quantitative Measures

© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.

Quantitative measures refer to those aspects of text complexity – such as word length or frequency, sentence length and text cohesion – that are difficult, if not impossible, for a human reader to evaluate efficiently. This is especially true in long texts, and thus quantitative measures today typically are measured by computer software.

There are a number of quantitative tools to help educators assess the complexity of a text. These include:

Qualitative Measures
Qualitative features are those that cannot be measured by computers. These require a deep understanding of the text and grade-level standards, and therefore must be evaluated by educators. To determine qualitative measures one must consider the following:

  • Structure: Texts of low complexity tend to have a clear chronological structure that is easy to predict. Graphics, if used, either directly support or help to build understanding. On the other hand, a highly complex text tends to have complex, implicit and (in literary texts) unconventional structures such as the use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, multiple points of view and other manipulations of time and sequence. Graphics often provide an additional source of information and are essential to understanding a text.
  • Language Conventionality and Clarity: Texts that rely on literal, clear and conversational language tend to be easier to read than texts that rely on figurative, ironic, ambiguous or otherwise unfamiliar language – such as general academic and domain-specific vocabulary. Sentence structure can range from mainly simple sentences to ones that are composed of several subordinate clauses, phrases, transition words and/or contain multiple concepts.
  • Knowledge Demands: Less complex texts rely on everyday, practical knowledge and include simple, concrete ideas. As the knowledge demand expands to include discipline-specific or explores sophisticated or abstract themes, the text becomes increasingly more complex.
  • Levels of Meaning (literary texts) or Purpose (informational texts): Literary texts with a single level of meaning in which the theme is obvious and revealed early in the text tend to be easier to read than those in which theme is subtle, ambiguous or revealed over the entirety of the text. Similarly, informational texts with an explicitly stated purpose are generally easier to comprehend than informational texts with an implicit, hidden or obscure purpose.

The Qualitative Measures Rubric, available for both literary and informational text, can help teachers determine the qualitative levels of a text.

NOTE: In most cases, the qualitative analysis of the text will align with the quantitative measures assigned to a text. However, there are some exceptions. Narrative fiction in grades 6-12 is not always reliably quantifiable. For example, while “To Kill a Mockingbird” has a Lexile that places it in the 4-5 grade band, the complexity of the layers of meaning in this text can push it up to the 9-10 grade band for instruction. Similarly, poetry and drama are often not reliably quantifiable.

Sometimes, preference should be given to the qualitative measures for these texts. This type of exception, however, should rarely be exercised with other kinds of texts as it is critical that students have adequate practice with texts that fall within the quantitative band for their grade level.

Reader and Task Considerations
Lastly, educators should evaluate the text in light of the students they plan to teach and the task they have assigned. Consider possible struggles students might face, as well as brainstorm potential scaffolding to support students in unpacking the most complex features of the text. Reader and Task Considerations enable the educator to “bring” the text into a realistic setting—their classroom. You can use the Suggested Considerations for Reader and Task to aid this process.

Additional Resources
Matching students to the appropriate text is crucial to progressively building literacy skills. The following resources are helpful tools to support you as you make these important instructional decisions.