Text Complexity Mini-Series, Part I


Whether you’re in a state that has adopted the Common Core State Standards or not, chances are that if you’re involved in the world of secondary literacy, you’ve heard a decent amount about text complexity. Certainly within the scope of Common Core, text complexity is a major issue. Over the next weeks and months we will explore the intricacies of text complexity, including some practical applications for beefing up the text your students read as well as moving them along the complexity continuum. For today, we’ll look at what text complexity is, and why it matters for our students.

There are three components of text complexity: quantitative, qualitative, and reader and task considerations.

Text Complexity

Quantitative measures are determined by the assessable features of text and are less subjective than qualitative. These may include word frequency, sentence length and structure, word and text length, and text cohesion. The most common quantitative measure used currently, including in PWImpact-Teengagement materials, is the Lexile level of the text at hand. Common Core has created new “stretch” Lexile Bands, increasing the rigor of text for each grade level.1

Text Complexity Grade Band   Old
Lexile Bands
Lexile Bands Aligned to CCSS (“Stretch” Bands)
6‒8 860L–1010L 955L–1155L
9‒10 960L–1115L 1080L–1305L
11‒CCR 1070L–1220L 1215L–1355L

The next component for text complexity considers the qualitative distinctions of a text. More subjective in nature, qualitative measures point to the quality of a text. This includes the meaning, structure, purpose, language conventionality, and clarity of a text, and knowledge demands for students reading it. Those texts with complex meanings, obscure or highly technical language, or those that require a high level of background knowledge are considered more difficult on the text complexity continuum. Teengagement texts use a qualitative rubric of text complexity for informational texts, as created by the Council of Chief State School Officers. In it the text is analyzed determining the complexity of the text’s purpose, structure, language, and knowledge demands.

The final component of text complexity is Reader and Task Considerations. This refers to student knowledge, motivation, interest, and experience with the topic at hand. Student motivation and engagement with a text is a determining factor in whether he or she will develop an interest the text, read with understanding, and stay connected to the text. Teengagement units of study use engaging, high-interest texts in order to draw the reader into a unit, and then proceed with more technical texts, plus bringing in prose, vocational, and other texts in order to increase students’ ability to handle and compare complex texts.

Text complexity is such a critical issue because as students age, they have increasing trouble handling the complexity of text required of them. Common Core asks that students read complex texts and be able to read grade-level, subject-specific texts with independence. Research gathered by the creators of Common Core shows that students are required to read complex text with little support or scaffolding in college and careers after high school, and are currently largely unequipped to do so.2 Therefore, teaching them to handle text of increasing complexity is essential to preparing our students to succeed in their lives beyond the classroom.

Next month we’ll look at how to determine a student’s current ability to handle complex texts and ways to increase that ability.


  1. “The Lexile Framework for Reading: Matching readers with texts,”


2.  “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards,”


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