Exploration: Map the Road

What is Text Complexity?

In the Standards, text complexity includes three critical elements: Quantitative (aspects of text such as word length/frequency, sentence length, easily measured by computer algorithms), qualitative (aspects of text not measured through readability such as figurative language, text structure, multimodality text), and reader and task considerations (variables that impact comprehension such as the reader’s cognitive capabilities, motivation, purpose for reading, and the knowledge and experiences unique to each reader).

For many years the formal evaluation of text was limited to readability measures such as Flesch-Kincaid, Dale- Chall, Lexile, etc. Although many tools for measuring readability are useful, the information provided from these tools is insufficient for instructional purposes and does not fully measure the complexity of a text to inform instruction. Although most texts can be measured for quantitative qualities, like readability, it becomes quite challenging to match students to suitable complex texts, as required in the standards, without considering all three aspects of text complexity equally.

Educators must use reliable quantitative and qualitative measures as well as their own professional judgment in matching texts to individual students and tasks. Because different readers bring unique abilities and dispositions to each reading situation, educators must consider the elements of text complexity when planning instruction to better prepare students to meet the requirements of the standards. In some instances, these reader and task considerations sometimes outweigh both the qualitative and quantitative measures available.

Because no single tool and no single measure of text complexity is perfect, educators should consider all three parts of the text complexity triangle before selecting instructional texts. There are many features that make a text complex, such as the structure and style of

sentences and the text itself. (CCSSO, 2010). But typically, it is the topic of a text that makes it difficult—and topics are differentiated by ideas which are represented by words. Particular tasks may also require students to read harder texts than they would normally be required to read. Keep in mind that the tools for measuring text complexity are at once useful and imperfect and that a students’ ability to read complex text does not always develop in a sequential fashion. Therefore, each text and reading task needs consideration to ensure that students are engaged in appropriate complex text in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Why is Text Complexity Important?

One of the key elements of the Common Core State Standards and thus the 2010 Minnesota Academic Standards for English Language Arts is a desire for all students to be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. By the time students complete high school, they must be able to read and comprehend independently

and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers. In addition, a wide body of research suggests that if students cannot read challenging texts with understanding—if they have not developed the skill, concentration, and stamina to read such texts—they will read less in general. (CCSSO, 2010).

There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and instructional practice have not done enough to foster the independent reading of complex texts so crucial for college and career readiness, particularly in the case of informational texts. This is of particular concern as expository text makes up the vast majority of the required reading in college and the workplace (Achieve, Inc., 2007, CCSSO, 2010).

As Adams (2009) puts it, “To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought” (p. 182). Identifying the dimensions of text complexity are critical because, when the goal is to increase capacity with increasingly more complex texts, the features that are identified as making texts difficult will also be the dimensions that are emphasized in instruction.

Students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading, both of which the Standards allow. Such factors as students’ motivation, knowledge, and experiences must also come into play in text selection. Students deeply interested in a given topic, for example, may engage with texts on that subject across a range of complexity. The ultimate goal of engaging in complex text is making meaning.

Teaching with a wide variety of text structures deepens students’ interest, engagement and comprehension of complex test. Although the progression of Reading Standard 10 defines required grade-by-grade growth in students’ ability to read complex text, the development of this ability in individual students is unlikely to occur at an unbroken pace. To achieve these goals, teachers should examine texts carefully to identify features that support or interfere with meaningful understandings using the three-pronged approach described above (Risko, 2011).

What resources are available?

Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp
The Challenge of Challenging Text by Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey for ASCD


Achieve, Inc. (2007). Closing the expectations gap 2007: An annual 50-state progress report on the alignment of high school policies with the demands of college and work. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.achieve.org/files/50-state-07-Final.pdf

Adams, M. J. (2009). The challenge of advanced texts: The interdependence of reading and learning. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better: Are American students reading enough of the right stuff? (pp. 163–189). New York: Guilford.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Risko, V. J., Walker-Dalhouse, D., Bridges, E. S. and Wilson, A. (2011), Drawing on Text Features for

Reading Comprehension and Composing. The Reading Teacher, 64: 376–378. doi: