How Do We Help All Students Access Complex Text?

Text Complexity is a hot topic in education today. With renewed emphasis on Text Complexity in the Common Core State Standards and in other revised state standards documents, teachers must find ways to help students access text that is written above their current reading level, or at or above grade level. When and how should we introduce Complex Text to students? What exactly makes text complex?

Defining Text Complexity

Text Complexity is defined by a number of factors, including quantitative, qualitative, and task and reader considerations. Quantitative measures include measurements such as Lexile levels, and are one good indicator of complexity. However, quantitative measures alone do not provide an accurate measure of complexity. Teachers must also consider qualitative factors such as the complexity and density of the language used (including figurative language), the structure and organization of the text (including text features and graphics, or lack thereof), the clarity of the language used, and the knowledge demands on the reader, such as prior knowledge and background of the reader, Vocabulary, and cultural perspectives.

Grade Level or Reading Level?

When using Complex Text with students, another consideration can be made: is the text complex based on the age and grade level of the students, or is the text complex based upon the reading level of the students? In other words, a grade level, Complex Text would be a challenge for students that are reading close to or at grade level. For students who are not reading at grade level, another text may be complex for the reader, but not necessarily for another student reading at grade level. All students, regardless of reading and achievement level, deserve access to complex, grade level text. It is possible, and even recommended, to have struggling readers practice accessing Complex Text with texts that are complex based on their reading level. However, this should not be the end. In either case, students will need differing amounts of scaffolding in order to read and understand the text.

Purposeful Scaffolding

Scaffolding comes in several forms, and when preparing students to read Complex Text, it is important to consider how much scaffolding will be needed. Consider what students know about the topic, and critical information such as historical or cultural context that you may need to teach ahead of time. Be careful not to teach students about the details of the text, or even the overall meaning, as you may inadvertently take away the need to actually read the text to get the meaning. Vocabularyknowledge and instruction should also be carefully considered; front-load words that are critical to the meaning of the text, but that are not contextually defined or defined through context clues. Pictures and video can also be used to provide context as well as support Vocabularyacquisition while reading Complex Text.

The Key

The key here is to build the reading of Complex Text into your instruction in a variety of ways. Choose text (sometimes) that is grade-leveled Complex Text, and scaffold (at times a great deal) for your students who struggle with reading academically. You can also provide text at other times that is complex for a certain group of students but that may not be complex for others, as a means of practicing and building success. In either case, texts that require students to think deeply and struggle productively will help them to be successful as they progress through their educational careers.