| Share: | More

Text Complexity

Being able to read increasingly more complex texts has always been a driving goal of reading instruction. But often this goal has not been directly addressed in state standards and assessments. Things are different within the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core has made increased attention to this feature of reading instruction by devoting an entire standard to text complexity—Standard 10.

As the name TextProject indicates, appropriate texts for reading instruction are at the center of our efforts. We have been studying texts and their effects on students' reading achievement and engagement long before the recommendations of the Common Core. There are numerous resources related to text complexity available for educators and we will continue to bring the most current answers to questions about text complexity.

Visit our Pinterest board on Text Complexity for an overview of our resources.

Text Complexity: Definitions & Distinctions
Text Complexity & Instruction
Text Complexity & Vocabulary
Text Complexity & its Measurement


77sec on Text Complexity: What Makes a Text Complex?

77sec on Text Complexity: What's the Difference Between Accessible and Dumbed-down Texts

TextProject Answers

What role does motivation play when reading complex text, even for students who may not have all the vocabulary to tackle the text?

The idea that students’ motivation will make up for a lack of knowledge of critical words in a text is suggested by Common Core writers in Appendix A where they state: “Students deeply interested in a given topic, for example, may engage with texts on that subject across a range of complexity” (p. 9). The few studies that support the idea of interest compensating for difficulty involved students reading short texts for short periods of time. And, yes, there are anecdotal reports of interested readers persisting with hard texts, often coming from our own experiences or those of children in our acquaintance. But there are numerous questions about what challenging text means in day-to-day school settings:

First: What is the discrepancy between readers’ proficiency and text complexity? If readers are proficient with the core vocabulary—that is, 90% of the words in most texts—they will be able to navigate many texts. For these students, reading a text where 10% of the vocabulary is unknown may be tedious but, with sufficient interest and background knowledge, they have a greater likelihood of comprehending at least some of the text than students who don’t have a solid foundation in the core vocabulary.

Second: What is the duration of the challenge? It may be entirely possible for students to persist in reading a short text which is challenging but their engagement may wane with longer texts, especially ones that are book-length.

Third: What is the frequency of the challenge? If almost all of students’ school time is spent with text that they can’t read facilely, they are less likely to respond with interest to challenging text than when such text consumes only part of their reading experiences. The frequency of the challenge brings up the issue of students’ history with reading in school. If students have a long history of being given only challenging texts in schools—and there is evidence that that has been the case for many children of poverty—the engagement that they showed as primary-level students will likely wane by middle school. As John Guthrie has shown, consistent diets of particular school tasks, including the degree of challenge in texts, can sustain engagement or lead to disinterest. The challenge for educators in Common Core classrooms is to create a diet of varied texts that support students’ development as readers, all the while involving them with compelling content that fosters an interest in learning.

A recorded version of this response, entitled “Challenging Text and Motivation,” is available at TextProject's YouTube channel.

With the enormous emphasis on complex text within the Common Core State Standards, what roadblocks should teacher be prepared for? And how can they prepare for these roadblocks?

I’ve written extensively about potential consequences of (mis)interpretations of text complexity. Here are my three biggest fears and potential responses of teachers to the current push for complex texts.

Problem: Teachers will be browbeaten to give students texts which have been identified by third parties to be complex but which students either can’t read facilely or which they don’t understand. An example of inappropriateness is children asked to read Sarah, Plain and Tall in the middle of second grade. Yes, some children may be able to pronounce most of the words words but the ideas of this book were aimed at older children (as evidenced by its receipt of the Newbery award as the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in 1986).

Solution: Teachers in districts and schools need to identify texts that illustrate the progression of growth expected at particular grade levels.

Problem: Teachers will think that they don’t have the expertise to identify which texts are appropriately complex to grow the capacity of their students. They will look for third parties to tell them which books are complex and which aren’t.

Solution: Knowing that a text has a guided reading level of N or a Lexile of 810 does not provide teachers with information on how to increase students’ reading capacity with a text. Teachers need to examine texts themselves, attending to features such as prior knowledge, text structure, vocabulary, and purpose in relation to their own students. Publishers can give useful guidelines (e.g., the number of words that are challenging, the demands of prior knowledge) but teachers need to develop skills at identifying the features that require attention for their students.

Problem: In scrambling to give students complex texts, teachers will forget that proficiency at any complex task reflects involvement and practice over time.

Solution: Teachers need to attend to the amount that their students are reading across a school day. Many American students simply aren’t reading enough across a school day to achieve the foundation needed to grapple with complex text.

To learn more about my cautions related to text complexity and an alternative that I’ve proposed—the Text Complexity Multi-Index—see:

Hiebert, E.H. (2012). Readability and the Common Core’s Staircase of Text Complexity (Text Matters 1.3) and The Text Complexity Multi-Index (Text Matters 1.2). Retrieved from http://textproject.org/professional-development/text-matters/

Featured Resources

Benchmark Texts: Stepping Up Complexity

Benchmark Texts: Stepping Up Complexity

Adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represents the first time that explicit complexity levels have been set for grade-level texts. The Standards give little guidance for how to support the many students who struggle to read complex texts. TextProject is responding to this need with research-based resources to guide educators in identifying appropriate texts for struggling readers.

Teaching Complex Text: Why Look at Word Frequency?

In this webinar Dr. Hiebert explores the relationship between a text's word frequency number and the Lexile number.

RRR-10-01 Cover Image

Reading Research Report #10.01

An Examination of Current Text Difficulty Indices with Early Reading Texts

This report examines the difficulty of early reading texts over the years as measured by today's prevailing indices.

Hiebert, E.H. & Pearson, P.D. (2010). An Examination of Current Text Difficulty Indices with Early Reading Texts (Reading Research Report 10.01). Santa Cruz, CA: TextProject, Inc.

RRR-11-03 Cover Image

Reading Research Report #11.03

Using Multiple Sources of Information in Establishing Text Complexity

The Common Core State Standards/English Language Arts use Lexiles as the single measure of text complexity, but an analysis using the two component measures of Lexiles along with a third measure suggests that conclusions about text complexity vary considerably when multiple quantitative measures are used, rather than a single, omnibus index.

Hiebert, E.H. (2011). Using Multiple Sources of Information in Establishing Text Complexity (Reading Research Report 11.03). Santa Cruz, CA: TextProject, Inc.

text matters readability and complexity cover
Text Matters

Readability and the Common Core’s Staircase of Text Complexity

For a long time, educators have asked questions about what makes a text complex. Why is it harder for students to read some books than others? How are we to help students select texts that will challenge them without frustrating them? What type of texts will increase their reading achievement most effectively?

text matters tcmi cover
Text Matters

The Text Complexity Multi-Index

The Text Complexity Multi-Index (TCMI) is a process for matching texts with students. The process attends to all three dimensions that were recommended by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS Initiative, 2011) for selecting texts: (a) quantitative, (b) qualitative, and (c) reader-text match. Qualitative measures are of two types: comparison with a set of benchmark texts and a scheme for analyzing core traits of texts. The two types of qualitative measures mean that the TCMI process has four steps.

text matters 7 actions cover
Text Matters

7 Actions that Teachers Can Take Right Now: Text Complexity

A separate standard for text complexity in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) means that this feature of reading development is at the center of many conversations among educators. How this standard translates into classroom instruction is less clear. Even with current texts, teachers can take some important actions to support their students on the staircase of text complexity—right now!

text matters el vocabulary cover
Text Matters

Text Complexity and English Learners—Building Vocabulary

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are changing curriculum planning and classroom instruction in many ways. One significant change involves the difficulty levels of text. In the past, standards documents have referred to proficiency with grade-level texts. However, grade level was not defined. The CCSS represents a departure from this practice. Standard 10 of the CCSS specifically calls for increasing levels of text complexity across the grades to ensure students’ proficiency with the texts of college and career. This standard affects all students, but it represents a special challenge to English Learners. Many educators ask what increases in text complexity mean for English Learners, many of whom struggle with their current texts.

Other Resources

7 Actions That Literacy Leaders Can Take Right Now: Text Complexity

Frankly Freddy Post

27 February 2013

Seven actions in which literacy leaders can support teachers in ensuring students’ increased capacity with complex text.

Teaching Complex Text: Why Look at Word Frequency?

Frankly Freddy Post

21 June 2012

Dr. Hiebert explores the relationship between a text's word frequency number and the Lexile number.

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

Frankly Freddy Post

26 June 2012

Dr. Hiebert shows how the Lexile for a text can change with a few simple edits.

Scaffolding Complex Text: Volume of Text Matters

Frankly Freddy Post

30 July 2012

What's the difference between text for below-level readers and advanced reader?  How Lexiles differentiate "difficult" and "easier" books for readers.

Text Complexity and How it Applies in the Classroom


18 October 2011

Freddy presented a webinar on October 18, 2011 for Pearson Education.  The webinar series is called Unlocking the Common Core: Pearson Common Core Institute.

Text Complexity and the Common Core Moving Into Action With Confidence


5 December 2012

Presentation slides from Nov 11, 2012 in Cobb County, GA.

Text Complexity and English Learners - Building Vocabulary (Part 1)


6 February 2013

Presentation slides for Feb 6, 2013 webinar: Text Complexity and English Learners - Building Vocabulary (Part 1).

Growing Students Capacity with Complex Text Information Exposure Engagement


18 February 2013

Presentation slides for Feb. 18, 2013 webinar, Growing Students Capacity with Complex Text Information Exposure Engagement.

Text Complexity and English Learners - Building Vocabulary (Part 2)


26 February 2013

Presentation slides for Text Complexity and English Learners - Building Vocabulary (Part 2)

The Common Core State Standards and Text Complexity

Research Article

5 May 2011

This chapter explores the concept of text complexity and how it is addressed in the Common Core State Standards.

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.


Core Vocabulary and The Challenge Of Complex Text

Research Article

7 July 2014

Pre-publication of Freddy's chapter in S. Neuman & L. Gambrell's (Eds.) soon-to-be published Reading Research in the Age of the Common Core State Standards.

Hiebert, E.H. (in press). Core vocabulary and the challenge of complex text. In S. Neuman & L. Gambrell (Eds.), Reading Research in the Age of the Common Core State Standards. Newark, DE: IRA.

7 Actions that Teachers Can Take Right Now: Text Complexity


11 October 2012

Archived recording of Freddy's October 11, 2012 webinar: 7 Actions That Teachers Can Take Right Now: Text Complexity.

Hiebert citrix

Using Quantitative Measures of Text Complexity in Classroom Instruction: What’s Appropriate? What’s Not?


11 January 2013

Dr. Elfrieda H. Hiebert, TextProject & the University of California, Santa Cruz

Dr. Hiebert presents information on using quantitative measures in the new Common Core Assessments.

77 sec on Text Complexity: What are good books to use with beginning readers?


7 March 2013

Freddy talks about features to look for in books to use with beginning readers.

Other Resources