Teacher to teacher

Using text complexity in the classroom

Under the Common Core State Standards, students will be expected to read and comprehend texts with increasing complexity as they progress through school. In fact, the standards specifically require that “by the time they complete the core, students must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers.”

Text complexity relies on a composite of quantitative and qualitative factors. The former includes measures that are easy to communicate through standardized tools and matrices. The latter rely more on the professional discretion and judgment of the teacher.

Quantitative Factors

Word Frequency is the number of times that a particular word appears in a text. A student unfamiliar with a high-frequency word will have difficulty understanding the overall meaning of a text.

Sentence Length is just that. Readers construct meaning by chunking words together to form a principal idea. Sentences with embedded clauses such as prepositional phrases or appositives demand a lot of a reader, especially English language learners and students with special needs. It is important to note, however, that sentence length may not create text complexity. Sentences constructed with repetition, rhyming words or a series of commas would not necessarily hinder text understanding.

Word Length refers to the number of syllables in a word. With word length, as with sentence length, longer words are not inherently hard to read and may not contribute to text complexity.

Text Length is measured in words.

Text Cohesion refers to how well a text holds together. A high-cohesion text aids readers by signaling relationships among sentences through repetition and concrete language (as opposed to figurative language such as metaphors, idioms, similes and analogies). On the other hand, a low-cohesion text demands that the reader work without these supports.

Qualitative Factors

Level of Meaning or Purpose of Text. Some texts provide an explicit, straightforward objective and purpose for reading. Informational texts or literary texts of this kind are easier to read than their counterparts which may, in the case of informational texts, have obscure or implicit messages. For literary texts whose discourse style may provide hidden messages (i.e., satires, parodies) or inferred meaning (i.e., literary prose with figurative language), unearthing their meaning requires high-level thinking and processing.

Structure. Texts characterized as low complexity have simple, conventional structures. Informational texts with low complexity tend to have chronological structures and do not deviate from well-established layouts of this genre. Literary texts with low complexity relate events in a chronological way with little or no manipulation of time and space. Literary texts with high complexity incorporate multiple voices, flashbacks, flash-forwards and other devices used to disrupt conventional understandings of sequence.

Language Convention and Clarity. Texts that deviate from contemporary use of English, (i.e., dialects or antiquated language form) tend to be more difficult to decipher. For example, popular fiction tends to use less figurative language than writing labeled as “literature.” Additionally, texts that rely on natural language instead of academic knowledge or jargon in information texts have lower text complexity.

Background Knowledge. Texts that require students to approach a text with a certain amount of previous knowledge are more complex than those that assume students have no prior knowledge about a topic and hence provide it.

Next Steps for Teachers

Our goal as educators is to provide students with an education that supports critical thinking, allows for comfort with abstract thinking across an array of genres and fosters a love of learning. This means we must pay attention to the nature and scope of texts. As a rule of thumb, texts that introduce a unit or build background knowledge should look radically different from those used to support the deepening of the concept throughout the course of the study.

For example, a teacher may want to introduce a discussion of “community” by referring to an expository nonfiction text that literally denotes its meaning. However, as students deepen their work with the concept of community, more interpretative materials found in poetry, narrative nonfiction and plays should support this end. The former provides background knowledge that will support the analysis of the latter.

The former does not require students to stretch their thinking because the concept is explicitly stated. The latter, by contrast, will require first an interpretation determining what is important for comprehension and then engender thinking beyond the text (i.e., text-to-self, text-to-text and text-to-world connections).

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