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19 Feb 2014

Knowing What's Complex and What's Not: Guidelines for Teachers in Establishing Text Complexity

Elfrieda H. Hiebert


The Common Core State Standards (CCSS; NGA Center for Best Practices & CCSSO, 2010), for the first time in a standards document, addresses whether students are increasing their ability to read complex texts over their school careers. Previous standards described strategies that students should perform with “grade-level” reading materials without explicitly defining what grade levels were. The CCSS takes a different tack. Quantitative benchmarks in the form of Lexiles (in the initial CCSS documents) as well as five more quantitative systems in a supplement to the Standards (NGA for Best Practices & CCSSO, 2012) have been used to create a staircase of text complexity where specific levels are specified for grade bands from second grade through high school. CCSS writers recommended two other criteria for the establishment of text complexity: qualitative assessments of features of text (e.g., levels of meaning) and designation of reader-task variables by teachers. But neither of these components were described with the same level of specificity as the quantitative benchmarks.

Quantitative measures have real but limited utility for teachers evaluating texts to use with their students. Metrics like Lexiles and the Flesh-Kincaid (FK) readability formula are best used for sorting large groups of texts. They provide a single number on the Lexile scale (from 0 to 2000) or a grade level on the FK As the assignment of 1090 Lexiles (L) or the grade level of 5.9 on t he FK for To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates, an overall omnibus measure of a single text does not provide substantial insight into what features make the text complex (Hiebert, 2011). Teachers need detailed information to determine if the content and features of texts will increase their students’ capacity to read more sophisticated material. This paper is designed to provide teachers with guidelines on what to consider when evaluating whether texts are at appropriate levels of complexity for purposes and students in their classrooms. Specifically, the question addressed in this paper is: What should teachers be looking for in selecting texts that are appropriate in complexity for their students?

Before describing the seven actions, two questions that are germane to the issue of text levels and readers’ capacities are addressed. In answering these questions and also throughout the paper, six texts are used in the discussion of text complexity. The six texts, the titles of which appear in Table 1, represent the grade bands 2-3, 4-5, and 9-10 used throughout the Standards. All of the texts are ones that CCSS writers identified as appropriately complex texts at different grade levels (as presented in Appendix B of the Standards). For each grade-band, there is both an informational and a narrative example.