Common Core: What Is A “Complex Text” Anyway?

Last month I attended a training focused on teaching “complex texts” to address the Common Core Standards. Unfortunately, when I left the training I was no closer to understanding what a complex text was or how I could evaluate the complexity of a given text. So, I decided to do some digging into this phrase to better understand what the Common Core ELA Standards were asking English, history and science teachers to do.

complex texts

It is important to start by answering the question, “Why are teachers are being asked to teach more complex texts?” The reason is simple…research shows that an increasing number of students are leaving high school unprepared for college level reading. “In 2008 the average score on the SAT’s reading portion fell this year to 496 out of a possible 800, its lowest mark since 1972 and down from last year’s 497.”

The Common Core Standards state that students leaving high school should be able to “read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” Although demands for reading in college have stayed the same or risen over the past hundred years, the complexity of the texts students are asked to read in elementary and secondary school have slowly and steadily decreased during that same time period. The result is a higher number of students who are unprepared for collegiate level reading. Many of these students struggle with college work, need remediation or are unable to graduate.

Given this widening gap between what students read in school and what they are expected to read and comprehend in college, the focus on increasing text complexity in K-12 grades sounds like a worthwhile goal. That said, many educators are unsure how to identify a complex text. 

There three aspects of a text that the Common Core measures to determine its “complexity” are:

    • Quantitative 
    • Qualitative
    • Reader and Task

Quantitative

Quantitative refers to word frequency, sentence length and text cohesion. These are difficult elements for a human reader to evaluate. To evaluate the quantitative measures, a teacher can refer to an electronic resource like the Lexile Framework. The Lexile Framework will score a text based on an evaluation of these elements. 

Students who are “college and career ready” should be able to read and comprehend texts that measure 1185-1385 on the Lexile scale. I was curious to compare the Lexile levels of texts students are required to read in high school with this college and career readiness measure.

Common Texts Lexile

I was surprised to find that many of the texts taught on my high school campus fall significantly short of the target Lexile level. If you are curious about the qualitative measure of a text, you can enter the text into the Lexile measure to generate a score.   

Qualitative 

Qualitative measures include structure, language conventionality and clarity, knowledge demands and levels of meaning and purpose. The qualitative measures complement the quantitative measure and are easier for teachers to evaluate without the help of technology.  

A group of teachers from a variety of states worked together to design a resource to support teachers in evaluating a text. I have included a screenshot below, but it can be found here.

Quantitative

This evaluation places texts on a continuum, instead of placing texts in a specific stage. 

Complex texts:

    • contain more implicit meaning and use unconventional structures. Literary texts make use of flashbacks, flash forwards, and/or multiple points of view. Informational texts may incorporate complex graphics and/or deviate from the traditional conventions and norms for that type of writing.
    • use figurative language, ambiguity, archaic or unfamiliar language (academic or domain specific). 
    • assume the reader has life experience (cultural, literary and content knowledge) that will contribute to his/her understanding of the information in the text. 
    • have literal meaning that is intentionally at odds with the underlying meaning. The purpose of informational texts may be implicit, hidden or obscure. 

Reader and Task Considerations

This final aspect of text complexity is left entirely to the educator. Unlike the previous two elements of text complexity, there is currently no research on reader and task considerations. Instead the Common Core states that “educators will employ professional judgement to match texts to particular tasks or classes of students.” 

Each class is different and classes are increasingly made up of more diverse groupings of students with a range of needs and abilities. Some classes are composed of stronger readers or students who are more motivated, which may impact a teacher’s text selection. Teachers have to decide what makes sense for particular groups of students to assess this final piece of the text complexity puzzle. 

Stay tuned: I plan to follow this post with another blog dedicated to teaching students how to read and understand “complex texts” using a range of strategies and tech tools.  

*ISTE Workshop: Transitioning to the Common Core with Google Apps – Join me!

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13 Responses to Common Core: What Is A “Complex Text” Anyway?

  1. Mary Clark says:

    Thanks for a clear and concise introduction to complex text. I’ll be sharing with the teachers and my school, and look forward to your next post.

    • Catlin says:

      Hi Mary,

      I’m glad my explanation felt clear and concise!

      It’s helpful to have a solid understanding of how to evaluate a text’s complexity. Now, I feel more confident when I am selecting supplemental digital texts to use with my students.

      Thank you for the comment.

      Catlin

  2. Julie says:

    Great information. Have you seen the Complex Text rubric at the following link? I’d like to hear your comments about it.

    Link to rubric from NY state:  http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/5D626BFF-D121-4AF4-B615-DE452B0FF096/0/Complexity_Rubric_Literary1011.pdf

    • Catlin says:

      Wow! Thank you for sharing that resource with me, Julie!

      It breaks down the elements that make up a text in a slightly different way from the resource I found on the Common Core Standards site, but I like it a lot. It would be really helpful to have that to reference when trying to determine how complex a text is. I can see that rubric being a nice complement to the handout where teachers place a text on a sliding scale of difficulty.

      This is what I love about blogging! I learn so much from other people who share with me. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Catlin

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  5. Wendy says:

    In the event that you are not already familiar with these CCSS ELA resources which I have found to be extremely valuable…

    http://csdela.weebly.com/high-school.html

    http://www.uen.org/commoncore/#eresources

    http://www.doe.k12.de.us/aab/English_Language_Arts/linking_documents.shtml
    click on the linking document for your grade level

    Find your blog posts to be clear, concise, and easy to digest…thanks for sharing your insights.

    • Thank you, Wendy!

      I always love when people share their favorite resources with me. I actually had not seen two of these!

      I’m thrilled to hear you enjoy my blog posts. I love writing them and sharing what I am doing.

      Take care.

      Catlin

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  7. Tracey says:

    I just have to tell you that I have been in several Common Core trainings and this really broke it down to my understand. This was clear and concise!!! Thank you!

    • I’m so glad, Tracey!

      I, too, have been to several trainings and was frustrated that I didn’t have a better sense of it until I did my own digging. I’m thrilled my explanation was helpful.

      Take care.

      Catlin

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