Finally, A Way to Understand Text Complexity

By on October 20, 2015

The national literacy standards (often referred to as the College and Career Readiness standards) argue that text complexity is key to students' success on college aptitude tests like ACT and SAT, in college courses, and at work. The standards call for teachers to increase text complexity, but what does that mean? The College and Career Readiness standards provide reading lists for teachers to consider, but that doesn't help educators evaluate the texts that they love to teach, nor does it provide any guidance for new texts that are selected specifically to teach the new reading, speaking, and writing standards. The question still remains: What does text complexity mean and how is it measured?

To help teachers learn more about text complexity and to build their confidence, we developed a tool that allows teachers to evaluate their own texts. We want to empower our educators by giving them a Text Complexity Meter so they can make decisions about the texts they want to teach and not be tied to a textbook or reading list that are often times not relevant to their students' needs and interests.

First, it might be helpful to replace the word "complexity" with "rigorous." Before complexity, educators used rigor to define challenging classes and course work. In the simplest terms then, text complexity refers to how difficult something will be for a group of students. Although there is much to be said about reading levels, developmentally appropriate texts, and supporting language learners, the focus of this eCoach is to help us understand the term "text complexity." Here is how it is used in the literacy standards.

"Rather than focusing solely on the skills of reading and writing, the ELA/literacy standards highlight the growing complexity of the texts students must read to be ready for the demands of college, career, and life. The standards call for a staircase of increasing complexity so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school."

Most schools and districts rely on Lexile--a number given to texts based on sentence length, word count, and vocabulary. These are fine measures for a computer to use. However, Lexile and NWEA MAP's RIT scale do not factor prior knowledge and context into their calculation. Admittedly, Lexile and NWEA MAP have developed remarkable software programs to evaluate a wide range of texts, but educators need a tool to help them better understand their texts when a Lexile or RIT scale isn't available. Additionally, Lexile and RIT cannot take into account what a student knows or how familiar students will be with the content of a text. These software programs can't factor in when something was written or what it is about. This is why Lexile and RIT scale should be one measure to consider. To be clear, our Text Complexity Meter is not in competition with either company. They have a different goal. Our mission is to empower teachers so they can study the texts they want to teach and learn more about them. And since a human is providing the information, our Text Complexity Meter can ask different and perhaps more important questions that focus on students' prior knowledge.

LiteracyTA's Text Complexity Meter asks four questions:

  1. How long is the text?
  2. How many challenging (unknown) words does it have based on your knowledge of your students?
  3. How familiar are your students with the content in this text? What do they know?
  4. How challenging is the text structure based on grade level?

Our Text Complexity Meter walks teachers through four very important questions that help them better understand the texts they teach. With each question, teachers become more aware of text complexity and how it is measured. 

Teachers can use this tool independently or they can use it to discuss a text during professional team time. The Text Complexity Meter is available on our Tools page and in our Digital Lesson Planner. We want to build teachers up and give them the tools they need to meet new challenges with confidence and success. The Text Complexity Meter is one way we deliver this mission.

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Literacy Standards In Action

We've mapped our literacy lessons and reading, speaking, and writing skills to state standards, Common Core, and NGSS. The standards are "the what" to teach. Our lessons are "the how" to meet the expectations defined by the standards. Click on the links below to view our quick reference table that maps standards to literacy lessons.

R4
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
R8
Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
R9
Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
W8
Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital resources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
W9
Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
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