“What exactly is text complexity?” That’s the number-one question teachers ask me during workshops on the Common Core State Standards. Understanding the elements of text complexity can help you select the best instructional materials and guide students to choose readable books. According to the standards document, they are quantitative measures, qualitative measures, and reader and task considerations. Beyond these, I’d like to share my six keys to unlocking complex texts for your students.

Quantitative Measures

This refers to text characteristics best analyzed by computer, such as sentence length and word ­frequency. The Common Core uses Lexile measures to set grade-level targets for students. Keep in mind that Lexile measures refer to the readability of a text—not a grade level. That’s why it’s crucial to keep our focus on students and choose texts based on their strengths and needs. A seventh-grade English language learner might be able to comprehend texts at a third-grade Lexile, while an advanced reader in that same class can comprehend texts Lexiled for 10th grade.

Qualitative Measures

These examine a book’s content and concepts: knowledge demands (prior knowledge), levels of meaning, text structure, language conventionality, and clarity. This area is the heart and soul of text complexity. Fifth graders can read The Giver by Lois Lowry, but should they? This novel deals with euthanasia and sexual feelings, concepts that make the book’s text complexity more appropriate to students who are in middle school. So as we rush students toward texts of increasing complexity, we must continue to ask, “Is this book’s content right for this child?"

Reader and Task Considerations

This area looks at students’ motivation, knowledge, and experience, allowing you to choose texts at their level, even if they don’t correspond to CCSS targets. In other words, you won’t have to give students instructional texts they can’t read. It also allows you to live with the fact that these developing readers need more than one year to meet the goal of reading complex grade-level texts. Remember, your ultimate goal is to accelerate student achievement, which you can only do by meeting students where they are and steadily moving them forward.

You’re now ready for the big six! Use these tips to help students unlock meaning in complex texts.

1 | Use an Anchor Text to Model Comprehension Skills and Strategies

An anchor text can be a picture book, part of a novel, biography, or informational text, or a short story, myth, or article that relates to the unit’s genre and theme. The rule of thumb is to keep it short. With this versatile teaching tool, you can make visible how you analyze texts or organize thinking into a journal entry. And because the texts are short and the lessons brief, it’s easy to review an anchor text lesson while conferring with a student or a small group.

2 | Improve Students’ First Readings: Set Purposes and Read for the Gist

Setting purposes for reading helps guide students’ search for important details, themes, and inferences. To set purposes, you can ask students to turn the title into a query: Why is this called _____? Or students can use a unit theme, such as stereotyping, to pose a question: What does this book have to do with stereotyping? Then students read for the gist to discover a few core ideas.

3 | Unconfuse Students: Teach Them to Reread and Close Read

All students, from beginning to advanced, can experience confusion when reading an unfamiliar word or a complicated passage. I recommend slowing down and rereading to unlock meaning from a challenging passage or find context clues to figure out the meaning of a tough word. If rereading doesn’t work, invite students to close read and think aloud word by word, phrase by phrase, making connections among ideas, until they comprehend.

4 | Spotlight Text Evidence!

Challenge students with high-level, text-specific questions and ask partners or small groups to skim texts for evidence and then discuss. Also teach students that a high-level question has more than one answer. Students can craft their own discussion questions using words such as how, why, evaluate, compare and contrast, explain. No matter who composes the questions, the CCSS stress that students use text details and/or inferences to support responses.

5 | Amplify Writing: Improve Compre­hension and Text Analysis

The Common Core recommends that students write about reading because writing can improve comprehension, recall, and analytical thinking. To build thinking and writing fluency, I recommend that students write daily brief, spontaneous responses to teacher read-alouds and their instructional reading. Equally important is for students to summarize fiction and nonfiction, explain specific ideas, and develop claims that they argue for, using evidence from one or more texts.

6 | Get Going With Robust Independent Reading

Independent reading invites students to choose materials that they can read with 98 to 100 percent accuracy. Students who read 40 to 60 books a year build stamina and can practice what they’re learning during instructional reading. When students read, read, read, they enlarge vocabulary, background knowledge, and fluency. We can strengthen independent reading by steering students to more complex texts and move the needle on reading achievement forward.

Knowing students’ interests and reading level can support decisions about ramping up independent reading and accelerate achievement. Let me explain. An eighth grader, reading two years below grade level, asks to be in the group reading L. M. Elliott’s Under a War-Torn Sky.

He explains that he knows “tons” about World War II and “really, really” wants to read the book. During our negotiations, I point out that he might have to reread parts to comprehend. At our end-of-book conference he says: “I reread some parts three times. It was worth it ’cause I love the book.” 

Author and literacy coach Laura Robb has taught in grades 4–8 for more than 40 years. Her newest book is Unlocking Complex Texts: A Systematic Framework for Building Adolescents’ Comprehension. She co-consulted on Scholastic’s XBooks, a nonfiction middle school curriculum.


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