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What’s the Big Deal about Text Complexity?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

In case you haven't noticed, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA and Content Area Literacy place a heavy emphasis on text complexity (R.CCR.10). In short, the developers of the CCSS believe that college and career ready (CCR) students are able to read and make use of complex texts independently.

Why the Obsession with Complex Texts?

Appendix A contains the argument for emphasizing complex texts. In short:

  1. The text complexity of required readings K-12 has gotten easier over the last 50 years.
  2. The text complexity of required readings in college/career settings has remained stable or increased over the last 50 years.
  3. There is a significant gap (up to 4 Lexile grade levels) between the average reading ability of a high school graduate and the text demands of postsecondary life.

This is enough to make me crazy. If our students leave high school with a significant gap between their independent reading ability and the text demands of postsecondary life, it's going to be very difficult for them to flourish. Postsecondary student flourishing is the lifeblood of my mission as a teacher.

So, what should be done about this? That's where the 10th anchor standard in the reading strand comes in (R.CCR.10). Students need consistent practice with reading complex texts on their own. This requires using a simple literacy teaching model like the kind Mike Schmoker lays out in Focus. If you'd like me to write more on that literacy model and my experiences with it, just leave a comment below!

So, moving on to text complexity. How do we know if a text is appropriately complex for the grade level that we teach?

First, Check Out Appendix B

When I first began engaging with the CCSS at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, I consulted Appendix B because this document is basically a list of exemplars sorted by grade level and genre. If you're looking for examples of complex texts that are appropriate for your setting, start with Appendix B.

Next, Understand the 3 Key Factors in Determining Text Complexity

The CCSS uses a balanced approach to determining whether a text is appropriately complex for a group of students. As you can see from the infographic above, text complexity cannot be solely determined by computer, nor can it be solely determined by people outside of your classroom, nor can it be solely determined by you.

To me, this makes sense. The teacher has to be valued as a key professional in the evaluation of text appropriateness for his/her particular students, but there also has to be some objectivity, both offered through algorithmic analyses of texts (quantitative measures) and offered by professional qualitative analysis of texts.

At the time of this writing (5/23/12), no agreed-upon methods for determining qualitative text complexity exist, but we can be sure that the midnight oil is burning in offices around the country towards this end. Unfortunately, profiteers will likely step forward and offer paltry methodologies for measuring qualitative text complexity, but I believe it's only a matter of time before some reliable qualitative text measurement tools become usable for classroom teachers like me.

And finally, the “reader and task” portion of the text complexity recipe allows for an appropriate amount of local flexibility and professional judgment. As I mentioned yesterday, such room for flexibility was a key principle in developing the CCSS, and I pray it is one that makes the standards viable for many years.

CCSS Anchor Standards Mentioned in this Post:

  • R.CCR.10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
    • Until a widespread consensus is developed on which texts are appropriately complex within the qualitative and quantitative measurements, I highly recommend checking out Appendix B of the CCSS ELA for a list of exemplar texts and tasks. I used it for at least two texts in the 2011-2012 school year — Oedipus Rex and Things Fall Apart — and my students enjoyed reading both books when they were appropriately scaffolded.

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11 Responses to What’s the Big Deal about Text Complexity?

  1. Becky Kooi July 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Ugh. I’m trying to find new texts for SCL, and the only one I like (that isn’t already in use) from Appendix B is The Book Thief. Is there some sort of system that I can use to quantitatively analyze books? I don’t see a lovely link on here that will do all of my work for me!

    • davestuartjr July 10, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      Hi Becky,

      How’s the ISI going? I am jealous of you while simultaneously feeling sorry for you with your mega-load as an ISIer, a new home owner, and an SCL makeover-er. Wow, what a load!

      Yeah, Appendix B is mega-short. I read *Fathers and Sons* in AP Lit in high school and really liked it; it would lend itself to a lot of philosophy discussions / debates (one of the main characters is a nihilist), and also parent/child conflict. You could psychoanalyze the characters with your students; it would be fun. It would also make SCL pretty ballin’ because the kids would be reading Russian lit.

      The CCSS does require some texts and text types, and those could offer you some ideas. For grades 9-10, students are expected to have “a wide reading of world literature.” Not sure exactly what that means, but for more info check out:


      Eventually, I’m sure there will be quantitative tools for measure the qualitative part of text complexity. However, that’s not much help to you this summer! :/ I know you are going to make SCL excellent.

  2. Sandy Grant March 15, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    Yes, please write more about the Schmoker literacy model. And the link to teachingthecore above is broken

    • davestuartjr March 15, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

      Will do, Sandy — thanks for posting and THANK YOU for the heads up on broken links. Thanks to you, I’ve discovered a lot more and am fixing everything I find. Thank you!

  3. Brie Kapina April 5, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Dave- just want to say thanks sooooo much for your website. I am planning professional development for my staff around complex talk and text and I’ve found your posts very helpful. What a great resource!

    • davestuartjr April 6, 2013 at 7:57 am #

      Brie, right back at you! Thank you so much for your kind words. I love that phrasing — “complex talk.” I think that sums a lot of the speaking/listening work up.

      Thanks again, Brie. Take care.

  4. melcubed August 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    I’d love to hear more about the Focus model if you are up to writing about it! I’m always looking for new ideas to keep my kids engaged and on top of their game 🙂 Thanks for your amazing blog. I found it at the absolute best time! 😉

    • davestuartjr August 16, 2013 at 9:12 am #

      Hi Mel,

      I’m super-pumped to get your comment, 1) because it’s really nice, and 2) because I’d love to write more about the Focus model in a later post.

      While you’re waiting for that, I do discuss large parts of it in the Non-Freaked Out series of posts; in particular, check out Complex Texts, Close Reading, and Go Big on Argument.

      Thanks again, Melcubed — you rock.

  5. Hillary November 28, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Thank you for your blog. Can you please explain “The text complexity of required readings in college/career settings has remained stable ( understandable) or……. “increase over the last 50 years” Thank You, Hillary

    • davestuartjr November 30, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

      Hi Hillary — that was a typo. Thank you for pointing it out. (You were pointing it out, right?)


  1. "Help! I Need Appropriately Complex Texts for my Elementary and Middle School Students!" - Dave Stuart Jr. - March 8, 2019

    […] keep in mind that Lexile is only a quantitative complexity measure, and, therefore, it should never be our only guide in determining whether we're giving kids […]

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