Unlocking Text Complexity


Text complexity is an important factor in literacy instruction. It refers to the level of challenge a text provides to the reader, considering various elements like language usage, structure, and content. Educators can unlock rigor in reading by considering text complexity and matching readers with challenging, engaging, and culturally relevant texts and tasks.

In 2011 Iowa adopted the Iowa Core Literacy Standards.  These standards included three shifts around ELA instruction.  One major shift was increasing the complexity of the texts used. Researcher Jeanne Chall found K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty over the last half of a century. With the ever-changing information landscape, it is important for our instruction to shift to include increasing opportunities to engage with complex text.

triangle representing the three-part model for measuring text complexity: qualitative, quantitative, and reader and task

What is Text Complexity?   

Text complexity refers to the level of challenge a text provides to the reader. Various elements like language usage, structure, and content impact this complexity. It acts as a gauge to measure the readability of a text and its suitability for readers. The concept extends beyond mere word count or vocabulary usage. It also embeds itself into the nuances of theme, structure, and implicit meaning. The intersection between the reader and the task is a critical factor in considering the complexity of a text.

The Iowa Core State Standards describe three dimensions of text complexity: quantitative measures, qualitative measures, and reader and task.  Quantitative measures delve into the statistical and syntactical aspects of a text. This involves analyzing word length, sentence length, and text cohesion. Algorithms and readability formulas are commonly used to assign a t numerical complexity score to a text. Examples of these include the Lexile Framework and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.  Qualitative measures, on the other hand, explore the dimensions of a text. These dimensions include theme depth, language conventionality, and knowledge demands. Educator discernment is often required to evaluate aspects like themes, the ambiguity of language, and the necessity for background knowledge.

Texts vs Tasks

The synergy between “text” and “task” plays a pivotal role in shaping a robust literacy and learning experience. Text, encompassing various genres and complexity levels, serves as the material readers engage with, offering diverse vocabulary, themes, and structures. On the other hand, task refers to the activities or assignments. Examples of this include analyses or creative projects that readers undertake to deepen their engagement and understanding of the text. The strategic interplay between text and task facilitates comprehension and skill development. It also provides a mechanism for assessment and feedback. This ensures that readers are both challenged and supported in their literacy journey. Thoughtfully selected and designed texts and tasks, therefore, stand as crucial components in determining the complexity of a text.  

Matching readers with texts that are challenging, align with interests, and are culturally relevant is crucial in fostering literacy development.  It is imperative educators unlock rigor in reading and consideration of text complexity is a great first step.

To learn more, reach out to a CRAEA literacy consultant!