Text Complexity: Is This Book at Grade Level?

An element of the common core I have yet to discuss on this blog but have heard rumblings of throughout the field of ELA is the idea of text complexity, which is best addressed in Appendix A of the CCSS, should you be so inclined for some light afternoon reading ūüôā

The need for choosing appropriately challenging grade level texts stems from research showing that although college and workplace text difficulty has risen in recent decades, the level of difficulty in the textbooks we use in our classrooms has steadily declined. ¬†When looking solely at Lexile scores (a quantitative measure of text difficulty based on a mathematical formula), I have heard varying discrepancy levels stating high school texts are anywhere from 100-300 Lexile levels¬†below¬†appropriate grade level complexity. ¬†What does this mean for our students? ¬†It means based on quantitative measures alone (more about other measures in a few minutes), we are currently graduating students who lack the skills to read and comprehend college and workplace level texts because what they are reading in high school isn’t challenging enough.

As we continue our move toward implementing CCSS, it is important for teachers to begin evaluating the complexity of texts we use in our classroom.

Before I continue, I need to take a moment to remind everyone that teaching literacy is not solely the job of the English teacher.  To establish some accountability for all content teachers as reading instructors, the CCSS go so far as to set literacy standards for other content areas.  So, even as I discuss text complexity in terms of ELA, if you assign reading in your class, checking text complexity is your responsibility also.

The CCSS evaluate a text’s difficulty by analyzing three components of the text: ¬†1) Quantitative Measures, 2) Qualitative Measures, and 3) Reader and Task Considerations.

Credit: Lexile.com

Quantitative Measures

To measure a text’s quantitative value, one would use one of the many already-created scales for readability such as Fry readability or a Lexile score. ¬†To search for a book’s Lexile score by keyword or title, use the Lexile book search tool. The image model above is slightly misleading in its representation of the equality of each complexity component. ¬†It looks as though qualitative, quantitative, and reader and task considerations each get equal weight in the evaluation of a text’s complexity, but from my reading of both Appendix A and other resources (see this published research by Hiebert), the quantitative measure seems to be the least reliable piece. ¬†Appendix A explicitly recognizes that a text with very complex qualitative measures (such as The Grapes of Wrath)¬†might have a low quantitative score because it uses shorter words, more dialogue (naturally more simplistic language), and dialect (which will, again, throw the readability score off). ¬†Quantitative measures, then, are not very reliable. ¬†They may serve as a starting point for discussion, but we need to use our professional judgment and rely more so on the qualitative measures.

Appendix A does, however, include references to grade-level-appropriate Lexile scores:

Credit:  Scholastic.com

Again, as you will note, by the end of grade 12, the expected quantitative measure of complexity has increased by 120 Lexile levels.  The discrepancy between current quantitative values and expected CCSS quantitative values begins with the 3rd grade, meaning we all need to check the complexity of our texts beginning with the 2-3 grades.

Qualitative Measures

A seemingly more reliable measure of complexity (to me, at least) is the quality of the text.  There is a little more common sense and professional opinion involved in measure the qualitative worth of a text.  A book with multiple plot lines is more complex than a book with one plot line.  A book with multiple narrators and changing perspectives is more complex than one with a single narrator/perspective.  Fall of the House of Usher is more difficult than Gift of the Magi.  Texts that are non-sequential or books that require the reader to fill in more of the background information (think Hemingway) are more challenging than sequential/linear texts that are straightforward.

The Kansas Department of Education has developed some excellent rubrics for evaluating the qualitative complexity of both informational and literary texts, which you can access and download directly or through the Ohio Resource Center. ¬†They also have blank evaluation templates and a sample evaluation for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

Reader and Task Considerations

The third measure for evaluating complexity (Appendix A) is to consider the reader and the task. ¬†What is the intended learning? ¬†How can I maintain this student’s engagement? ¬†Appendix A cites a reading study that identified the following important factors to consider in accounting for the reader and task:

The reader brings to the act of reading his or her cognitive capabilities (attention, memory, critical analytic ability, inferencing, visualization); motivation (a purpose for reading, interest in the content, self-efficacy as a reader); knowledge (vocabulary and topic knowledge, linguistic and discourse knowledge, knowledge of Common Core State Standards for english language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects comprehension strategies); and experiences.

The Kansas Department of Education also has a list of questions for educators to reflect on as they consider the reader and task in text complexity. (Available directly or through the Ohio Resource Center)

In terms of reader and task, I bet we are all thinking the same thing…”What do I do with the student who is reading significantly below grade level? ¬†How am I supposed to make him/her read grade level appropriate texts?” ¬†Well, Appendix A somewhat addresses that by basically saying teachers need to ensure students are constantly making strides toward increasingly more difficult texts:

Students reading well above and well below grade-band level need additional support. Students for whom texts within their text complexity grade band (or even from the next higher band) present insufficient challenge must be given the attention and resources necessary to develop their reading ability at an appropriately advanced pace. On the other hand, students who struggle greatly to read texts within (or even below) their text complexity grade band must be given the support needed to enable them to read at a grade-appropriate level of complexity

The CCSS expectation of struggling students is also addressed in the “Application to Students with Disabilities,” which says:

Some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will require substantial supports and accommodations to have meaningful access to certain standards in both instruction and assessment, based on their communication and academic needs. These supports and accommodations should ensure that students receive access to multiple means of learning and opportunities to demonstrate knowledge, but retain the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core State Standards. [emphasis added]

Without a clear definition of the expectations for students with disabilities and struggling readers, I think the best approach will be to wait until we have better guidance from the testing companies to determine a strategy.  For now, though, significant scaffolding and working toward grade-level texts should be in the forefront of our approach.

An Approach to Scaffolding

The ORC ELA Supervisors Network recently met to discuss the issues of text complexity and scaffolding in the CCSS.  Tara Boyer, Literacy Coach at Newark City Schools, gave an informative presentation about the process underwent by middle school teachers in her district this summer to evaluate and choose grade level appropriate texts for grades 6, 7, and 8.  She then walked us through the planning stages for scaffolding and addressing the needs of all learners.  I highly recommend checking out the presentation and the templates she provided.

Related Links

CCSS Text Types

Educational Leadership:¬†“The Challenge of Challenging Texts” by Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey

Kansas Department of Education–for many valuable CCSS resources, including the complexity rubrics

Educational Leadership: “Reversing Readicide” by Kelly Gallagher

Lexile: ¬†“Defining Text Complexity”

Engage NY Video:  Staircase of Complexity


18 thoughts on “Text Complexity: Is This Book at Grade Level?

  1. Pingback: Text Complexity: Is This Book at Grade Level? | Common Core Online | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Text Complexity: Is This Book at Grade Level? « Turn On Your Brain | Countdown to Common Core | Scoop.it

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  4. Has a list been compiled( by states) of books that the complexity has already been determined ( other than in the appendix B) so we all aren’t recreating the wheel. I’m particularly interested in elementary.


    • Hello–Not that I have seen. Kansas has a small list of “final recommendations” based on their rubrics, which includes A Separate Peace, Diamond Willow, How to Steal a Dog, Moon Over Manifest, The Evolution of Calpernia Tate, The Hunger Games, and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can access those here: http://www.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=4778 about halfway down the page. I’ll keep eyes open for other reviews and will post them in my blog. Thanks for the question!


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  8. Pingback: Understanding the Core: Text Complexity : AdLIT In Perspective

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  10. Pingback: Teaching Complex Texts | Pearltrees

  11. I believe you and David Coleman are living in a fantasy world in which assigning more difficult texts will magically turn non-readers into readers. Good luck with that.


    • I would encourage you to read my many other blog posts about using RtI thinking to provide leveled texts for practicing skills, using altered texts and close reading passages from grade-level texts for SWD, and how to build units that scaffold up to grade level texts.


  12. Pingback: Book Leveling and Text Complexity Articles | Annie The Little Princess

  13. Pingback: Does Text Complexity Matter? An Essay on Reading Level | A Book A Day

  14. Pingback: Text Complexity: Is This Book at Grade Level? ...

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