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5 May 2011

The Common Core State Standards and Text Complexity

Elfrieda H. Hiebert

Book Chapter

Hiebert, E.H. (2012).  The Common Core State Standards and text complexity.  In M. Hougen & S. Smartt (Eds.), Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction and Assessment, Pre-K–6. (pp. 111-120).  Baltimore, MD:  Paul Brookes Publishing.


For a long time educators have asked questions about what makes a text difficult. Why is it harder for students to read some books than others? How are we to help students select texts that will promote their reading while not frustrating them? What type of texts will increase reading achievement most effectively? What texts will motivate students to read more to reinforce skills they need to learn and to develop a life-long enjoyment of reading?

In comparing the first three texts in Table 1 with the last three texts, it is obvious that the first set is “easier” than the second set. But in comparing the first three texts with one another from the perspective of students who are learning to read, the differences are not as clear. Similarly, it is not obvious which of the last three texts would be most appropriate for a group of struggling readers in the fifth grade.

Determining text difficulty is complex. Any reading act involves a text—something with written language on it. That is what makes reading different from getting information from oral language. But the reading of any text is also influenced by the characteristics of readers (what does the reader know? How well does the reader recognize new words or think strategically) and context (is the reader given assistance in pronouncing words)? For a long part of the history of American reading education, determining text complexity has been either to rely on people’s judgments (typically those of editors in publishing houses and expert consultants that they hire) or quantitative formulas (numbers that rate the relative difficulty of a text, e.g. readability formulas).

The question of text complexity is especially important at the present time because of the expectations established in the Common Core State Standards. At least in the near future, the view of text complexity is going to be powerful in terms of the assessments that students are given, and it is going to determine how we view students’ accomplishments and also the kinds of texts that are given to them.

Objectives: After studying this chapter you will be able to:

1. Describe the emphasis on text complexity within the Common Core Standards (CCS).

2. Explain three overall approaches to text difficulty.

3. Implement informed choices of text using a combination of the three approaches.