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Syntax and Text Complexity: A Classic Text Goes from College-Career Level to First Grade

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 26 June 2012

There is a long history of research that identifies the manner in which text complexity as measured by readability formulas can be manipulated through changes in syntax and/or vocabulary.  In the current generation of readability formulas—ATOS, DRP, and Lexile—the complexity of the vocabulary in a text is established by computing an algorithm on the average frequency of the words in a text (with a word’s frequency established relative to all of the words in the database).

The vast discrepancies in the frequencies of words in written English—90% of the total words in texts in the Common Core exemplars is explained by 4,000 words and simple derivatives (e.g., help, helped, helping, helps, helper)1. The other 10% of the words come from a group of approximately 280,000 or more words. Even with statistical procedures to “normalize” the distribution, the differences in word frequency averages for texts are small. For example, the word frequency averages for The Gettysburg Address2—an exemplar text for grades 9–10—and Henry and Mudge3—an exemplar text for grades 2–3—are the same: 3.6.

With only small differences in the word frequency average, the role of syntax looms large.4 Gettysburg Address, with a Lexile of 1230, has an average sentence length of 22.08 words, while Henry and Mudge, with a Lexile of 460, has an average sentence length of 7.89 words. The word frequency averages, however, are similar.

The following example illustrates how a text—a portion of The Wind in the Willows5—can be manipulated to fit into all of the grade bands of the Common Core State Standards’6 staircase of text complexity.  What is critical to note is that all of the changes were at the level of syntax. None of the rare or infrequent vocabulary was changed—penetrating, imperiously, gaveled, residences, divine, discontent. In the final excerpt (with a Lexile equivalent to the third trimester of grade one), all of these words appear. The only changes that have been made are to the length of sentences. Kenneth Grahame’s long sentences have been made into shorter sentences—with enormous changes to the “readability” of the text.

Table 1
Illustration of Readability Changes: Syntax Changes Only
CCSS Grade Band Lexile
(Sentence Length, Mean Word Frequency)
  Number & Nature of Changes
11–CCRR 1370
(28/3.68)
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother! and O blow!’ and also “Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up, up we go’ till at last, pop! his snout camepopped out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. Elimination of exclamation marks (combining sentences); elimination of word pop; substitution of came with popped
9–10 (Original Text) 1200
(22.5/3.71)
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. Original text; no changes
6–8 1140
(20.45/3.68)
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor,. He said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. Replacement of comma with period after floor and insertion of He (forming 2 sentences)
4–5 920
(15.1/3.68)
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash till. He had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating. It penetrated even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor. He said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously , and he. He made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then. Then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working. He worked busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. Same as for grade band 6–8 above plus: Eliminate till (forming 2 sentences); Insert It (forming 2 sentences); Eliminate and (forming 2 sentences); eliminated and (forming 2 sentences); Inserted he; changed working to worked (forming 2 sentences)
2–3 740
(12/3.70)
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning,. He was spring cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash. He had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him. It penetrated even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor. He said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” andThen he bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously. He made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged. Then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped. He worked busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” At last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he. He found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. Same as for grade band 4–5 above plus: Inserted He was (forming 2 sentences); Replaced and with Then he (forming 2 sentences); eliminated and (forming 2 sentences)
Middle to end of Grade 1 360
(7.13/3.70)
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning. He was spring cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then withhe used brooms and dusters; then. Then he got on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash. He had dust in his throat and eyes, and. He had splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and. He had an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and. It was moving in the earth below and around him. It penetrated even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor. He said “Bother!” and “ O blow!” and also “ Hang spring-cleaning!” Then he bolted out of the house without even waiting. He did not even wait to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously. He made for the steep little tunnel which. It answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So heHe scraped and scratched and. He scrabbled and scrooged. Then he. He scrooged again and. He scrabbled and. He scratched and scraped. He worked busily with his little paws and muttering. As he worked, he muttered to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” At last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight. He found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. Same as for grade band 2–3 above plus: 12 sentences made out of 6 by adding pronouns, simple verbs (used, had, got, moving, did not, have); and phrase “As he worked”

1 Hiebert, E.H. (2011). The 90-10 rule of vocabulary in increasing students’ capacity for complex text. Retrieved from http://textproject.org/frankly-freddy/the-90-10-rule-of-vocabulary-in-increasing-students-capacity-for-complex-text/

2 Lincoln, A. (1965). Second inaugural address.

3 Rylant, C. (1987). Henry and Mudge: The First Book of Their Adventures. New York, NY: Atheneum.

4 Deane, P., Sheehan, K.M., Sabatini, J., Futagi, Y., & Kostin, I. (2006) Differences in text structure and its implications for assessment of struggling readers, Scientific Studies of Reading, 10(3), 257–275.

5 Grahame, K. (1908). The Wind in the Willows. London, UK: Methuen. Retrieved form Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27805

6 Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: CCSSO & National Governors Association (Appendix A, page 8).