Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

One of the critically mentioned components of the Common Core is the complex text. This need for complex text came out of studies that students were not arriving at college ready to read college-level texts independently. The Common Core documents also indicate other reasons and rationale. One of the most startling claims is: "Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century." Overall, the common core believes our students are not only ill-prepared to read complex texts, but also not receiving exposure and instruction coupled with complex text.

Credit: Common Core State Standards Initiative

One of the challenges of the "complex text" is gaining a real understanding of exactly what it is. When reading the prefaces and explanations in one of the Common Core appendices, the case is made for students to read increasingly complex texts, as it has been found that when students reach college they are not as prepared to understand the texts required at that level. Often our students are required to read these texts independently, so it makes sense to arm students not only with the skills to read these texts, but also give them practice in doing so.

But what exactly is a complex text, and how can you ensure that you are using age appropriate texts in the classroom?

Standards of Measurement

The Common Core measures complex text with three aspects.


When examining a text qualitatively for text complexity, you consider a variety of factors. You examine the text to see how much of the language is conversational and how much is academic. In addition, you should examine the language to see how much is literal and how much is figurative. When looking at literary texts specifically, you examine whether the text demands singular to multiple themes or themes that are complex. You should examine the text for singular to multiple perspectives. You also should consider if the text requires everyday or familiar knowledge and/or cultural knowledge outside of the familiar. These are some of the indicators to look for qualitatively. A text may rank high in some and low in others, but higher indicators overall are a good sign that a text is more appropriate for educating your students.


In terms of quantitative texts, there are many things to consider, and the Common Core acknowledges there is no perfect method for examination, rather there are many effective methods. Methods such as the Flesch-Kincaid and Dale Chall are mentioned as possible measurement standards. Although this data might be researched, there is no specific way for teachers to "score" a text independently. Rather, teachers should consider how these factors mentioned next might create challenge for readers. You should examine the text for syntactic complexity, sentence structure and word length. You might also examine for level of vocabulary and Lexile level. One of the most interesting points brought up from the Common Core is that we must demand appropriate Lexile scores to College and Career Readiness standards, as articulated by this chart:

Credit: Common Core State Standards Initiative

Readers and Tasks

To me this is all about instructional design; that we teachers are demanding rigorous and complex tasks for the work we ask our students to do with the text, while creating tasks that are appropriate for their learning objectives. The Common Core emphatically states that students must be engaged in complex texts, but -- no matter how rigorous -- this is not enough. We must scaffold the learning and reading skills needed, and demand high quality, authentic tasks for students. Educators also need to consider when it is appropriate to remove the scaffolding so students can read and perform independently, hopefully by the end of the year.

A Work in Progress

It is critical to note that the Common Core document states: "The Standards presume that all three elements of the complex text will come into play when text complexity and appropriateness are determined."


However, I would push back on the idea that all texts need to have them equally at all times. Yes, we need to make sure we are arming students with the skills and stamina to read texts that are complex; where the task assigned to students is rigorous, the quality level of the text is high, and the Lexile levels and other quantitative indicators are high as well. But I know texts requiring rigorous reading that may be low on the quantitative score. Consider the poem Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins, a text I often gave my secondary students. The vocabulary is not too complex, nor is the length of the text too long. Yet it measures high in the qualitative area, because the thematic aspect and the figurative language in which it’s written require critical reading. In addition, it would be crucial to give my students a task for this poem, whether formative or summative, that is rigorous and requires critical thinking. Make sure you are intentional in your choice of texts, regardless of how they measure up in terms of the indicators of a complex text.


Other documents on the Common Core site go into further detail on the ideas explained, and also give examples and contexts. In the Common Core document, texts are also suggested for grade level. These can be used as a guide, but only just as such. As our students come to us with different reading abilities, grade levels and cultural backgrounds, we must differentiate instruction through the texts we pick as well. As the Common Core is implemented more and in more in districts and schools, we as educators need to understand what the "complex text" is both in terms of what is good for our students and what the Common Core might dictate. We must not only carefully choose what they read, but also carefully choose what we are asking in terms of tasks and objectives when students read.


Regardless of whether not you are implementing the Common Core, these considerations and framework can help you intentionally pick texts to challenge your students. I hope this blog helps you to weed through the complexity of complex texts (pun intended)!

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Muriel Allen-Fields's picture
Muriel Allen-Fields
Fifth grade self-contained teacher from Philadelphia, PA

My school district will implement the Common Core in the fall...At the end of the last school year the teachers around the district participated in two professional development meetings to discuss what this would mean and the changes it would bring. In one of the packets distributed there was a list of literature recommendations by grade. Some of the recommended texts date back to the 1700s..really?!
I was relieved to read in your blog that we must not only consider the complexity of what we're assigning our students to read, but just as important, we must consider the tasks and objectives associated with the texts. I have found it difficult to always find interesting and complex text for my fifth graders. Either the text is interesting and not complex or the text is boring and complex. In the past I have used Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge Levels (2005) to plan rigorous, challenging activities for my students. I think that using Webb's higher levels (strategic thinking and extended thinking), will allow me to differentiate as needed, while continuing to provide my students with the "complexity of complex texts".

Joanne Reamy's picture
Joanne Reamy
3rd Grade Teacher, Georgia

We are struggling with implementing the new Common Core ELA standards this year. The biggest complaint I hear relates to resources, or lack thereof. We are asked to create complex tasks with text complexity when many of our schools do not have resources to help support the teacher in the classroom. Thank you for your post. It is helpful in evaluating what "text complexity" actually means. I think many teacher feel it means also includes bringing in a variety of text. It is all well and good to put standards out that say students now must read more complex texts. The questions is: how do we get them there?I was curious about the finding that K-12 resources have been on a downward trend. I know when I taught sixth grade a few years ago, students had difficulty reading the sentences in the grammar book. It is hard to find the parts of speech in a text when students cannot read the text.

stephanie's picture
Eighth Grade Teacher in NYC

As teachers we only want what is best for all of our students. Here is the question. How can we take text that is challenging, rigorous and distinct, and differentiate it to meet all the needs of our students? As you said above,our students come to us with different reading abilities. So the challenge is finding materials that will meet the requirements of the Common Core Standards as well as the abilities of our students. This is not easy. This takes time. I find it easier to take the reading material that meets Common Core, give it to all students, yet break it down in different ways for others. Is this being rigorous? I am not sure.

Discussion CCSS: Can't Beat Them, Join Them

Last comment 2 days 21 hours ago in Common Core

blog How the Common Core Supports Deeper Learning

Last comment 3 days 12 hours ago in Common Core

Discussion Spotlighting the First Amendment with a 5-Step Teaching Strategy

Last comment 3 days 3 hours ago in Common Core

Discussion Critical Thinking and the Common Core: Strangers or Siblings?

Last comment 1 week 3 days ago in Critical Thinking

Discussion 14 Examples of High Quality Civic Learning Opportunities

Last comment 3 weeks 22 hours ago in Common Core

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.