Series Let's Chat Core: Simplifying Text Complexity

Simplifying Text Complexity

Lesson Objective: In this series, Sarah Brown Wessling explains the Common Core State Standards and offers insights on how to implement the Core in classrooms across America.
All Grades / All Subjects / Standards


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Discussion and Supporting Materials

Thought starters

  1. How can the three-part model for measuring text complexity help you select "just right" books?
  2. How can you tell that a task is a good match for a text?
  3. What does Ms. Wessling mean when she says, "Don't try to walk through the exit: you'll only end up with a bruised nose?
  4. "?


  • Private message to Chris Frazier

Great resource, will use in my class.

Recommended (0)
  • Private message to faye bing
I Really enjoyed this video! I would like more training on Text Complexity.
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  • Private message to Purva Darole
This is an amazing video! I shall try it out in my Spanish as a Foreign Language class. Thanks!
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  • Private message to heather haddad
Love the thought process of the "three bears" approach. Having this in the back of your mind, will keep you pushing your students at a very successful pace. Challenging students is key. But not getting them to the point of being frustrated. Bundling is key to reaching an array of student interests and levels. This enables the students to read various content and relating them on the topic at hand. I believe this is excellent to enhance reading comprehension. Agree wholeheartedly about the Lexile scores. They are a great guide but are not the only qualifier. Knowing your students is key to success. Having the background of your student will enable you to properly engage and set your students up for success.Love the idea of starting simple on a difficult task. Gaining the skill to analyze a simpler text will give them the confidence to tackle the difficult text. Matching skill with text is crucial.
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  • Private message to Kim Lewullis
I totally agree with not only going by the Lexile score. There is so much more to a text than sentence length and vocabulary. It is important for teachers to look at the big picture and by that, I mean, they must also consider qualitative measures. And it goes without saying, but teachers should really know the books they are teaching and they should REALLY know their students.
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  • Welcome to Let’s Chat Core. I’m Sarah Brown Wessling.

    Today’s topic is Simplify Text Complexity. Our learning purpose today is to

    Welcome to Let’s Chat Core. I’m Sarah Brown Wessling.

    Today’s topic is Simplify Text Complexity. Our learning purpose today is to learn what comprises Text Complexity and how to incorporate it purposefully in the classroom. If you’re anything like me, knowing where something like Text Complexity resides within the whole scheme of the Common Core States Standards, it’s really helpful in understanding its purpose and how we use it.

    So let’s take a look at those Standards once again, now if you remember, we have the Math Standards; we also have the Literacy Standards. Within those Literacy Standards, there are four large strands; there is the writing strand, the reading strand, the speaking and listening strand as well as the language strand.

    When we take a closer look at reading, we’ll find that Text Complexity is right within that. This lets us know that Text Complexity is important in helping us choose the kind of text that we put in front of our students. One of the goals of reading is to help our students grow their ability to comprehend and to choose the correct text to put in front of them or the best text, the right fit kind of texts in front of our students become really crucial.

    I just want to remind everybody though that just because Text Complexity is within reading, is within literacy, it’s not just about those English Language Arts Teachers. In fact, Text Complexity is for any teacher who’s putting primary text in front of our students and as we know this component of the Standards is for all teachers. All teachers and all disciplines are being asked to put primary texts in front of their students so that our students really come to understand the role of literacy in that discipline.

    I think it’s time to really unpack what this Text Complexity is all about. I kind of want to offer my teacher working definition of Text Complexity. First of all, when I hear that phrase Text Complexity, it sounds a little bit scary that the word Complexity in of itself makes it sound as thought the point of this, is to put text in front of our students that are really difficult and really hard and while it’s true that we want to make sure that we are constantly challenging our students and constantly giving them something that just a little bit out of their comfort zones so that they can always be growing and always growing in their comprehension, we also need to understand that text complexity is about all of the nuances, the complex ways in which we think about and determine what kind of text we put in front of our students.

    One of the first myths that we really need to deconstruct here is the idea that just by putting a text that’s difficult in front of our students that’s going to make them a better reader because we know that’s not true. We know that really it’s a lot more nuanced in term of our approaches. In fact, when I talked to my students about the kind of texts that are in front of them and the thing that we want to read, I want them to find a just right approach. I want them to make sure that they aren’t reading something that it’s so easy that they’re not growing, they’re not thinking but I also want to make sure that they are not reading something so challenging that they’re having to look up every other word and not being able to string together any kind of comprehension when it comes to that text. So, it’s important to kind of I call it the Three Bears Approach, Not too easy, Not too hard, Just right but we want to make sure that as we’re finding that just right kind of sweet spot for our students that we’re always dialing it up just a tiny bit so that over the course of the year, over the course of the semester, over the course of the experience, students will be able to constantly grow in that way.

    Not only do we need to make sure that we’re putting just right text in front of our students but when we think about Text Complexity, it’s not just about the difficulty of the text, it’s also about the kind of text. This is the way that we can add complexity to kind of the fabric of our classroom.

    Yes, students need to read fiction. Yes, they need to read non-fiction, but they also need to be able to read info-graphics, poetry and films and music videos and graphic novel. This is why this so important.

    If we don’t give students the opportunity to transfer their reading skills from one genre to another one type of text to another then they kind of become stagnant. So, part of creating Text Complexity is giving them a variety of text in order to read.

    We probably know this, as teachers, as adult we probably intrinsically understand this because there are times when we encountered text that are more complex for us and we have to really slow down when we learn to transfer some of those skills.

    For me, I have to do this a lot when I think about the different between reading Shakespeare, which I do often and is not as complex for me frankly as reading the financial document that come to me from my insurance company or my investment company.

    It’s because the texts are different and that creates complexity so when we think about approaching a text, we want to make sure that we’re teaching our students those skills of questioning, making inferences and being able to paraphrase and tracing an argument or tracing a thought but they have to be able to do it in a variety of circumstances.

    So whether it’s a lab report or a blog or a comic book or a financial document, they have to be able to take those skills, reapply them and that’s how we create the kind of environment for our students. In which they’re not just looking for the right answer. It’s how we create the kind of environment that they need in order to really foster some life long literacy skills.

    Another way for us to really think about Text Complexity, especially, in ways to think about adjusting that text complexity is how we layer the texts that we offer students. For example, if we are just giving students a text and keeping that in isolation, we’ll be able to teach them some skill in order to make sense of that text and we might even be able to give them a different kind of genre later and ask them to transfer those skills.

    Another way to consider this is to think about layering text. What about having 3 texts in a bundle for students. Maybe there is a comic strip, maybe there is an info-graphic, maybe there is a journal article. In another bundle you have a piece of fiction, you have a music video, you have a poem.

    In those contexts what you’re doing is you’re getting students to look at the relationship between these texts and when they have to compare these texts, either in term of structure, in term of vocabulary, in term of content, in term of concept. They’re going to have to start to dig deeper. They’re going to have to start to look at some of the complex way in which these texts work, so that’s the third way for us to think about bringing text complexity into the classroom.

    Let’s now take a look at how the Core really gives us a visual for this Text Complexity and how the Core define it. Within appendix A, you’ll find that there is a great triangle graphic and it divides text complexity up into 3 components; the Qualitative, the Quantitative, and the Reader in the task.

    What I like to do right now is to break down these three. There are some wonderful resources in the appendix that you can read and get a lot of more comprehensive detail. I want to again put this in some teacher’s language for us.

    First of all I want to talk about that Quantitative component, for me, if I think quantitative and computer, I think about this element as the part of a text that can be measured by a computer software, this is the word length, the frequency, the sentence length. A lot of you probably heard about Lexile Score. This is where Lexile Score come from and this is important because Lexile Score can give us insight into the difficulty of a text. So, it becomes really important.

    However we also know that Lexile Score can sometime be misleading and I’ll tell you that when I first read the Core and I read the section on Text Complexity, I felt so liberated because for so long I’ve been hearing about making sure that we have the right Lexile score for the right kind of reader and while I agree with that I also always known and always believe that sometimes that just doesn’t make sense that Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun also rises” has a pretty low Lexile Score because of the way that write his sentences but I know that I’m not putting that book in front of a lot of students who may be able to comprehend the words but not understand the
    style, not understand the language, not understand the context and certainly not be ready for the content that’s going on in there.

    So it’s important for us to remember that one of the advantages of thinking about Text Complexity is it’s giving us permission to use Lexile Scores but also goes beyond them.

    In addition to the Quantitative, we have the Qualitative, kind of in reference to what I’ve just talking about. This is a human reader. This is the components of any text that can really best be measured by an attentive reader. so an attentive reader can determine the difficulty of language, the purpose of the text, the clarity of it, the kind of background knowledge demand that the reader might have or might need in order to affectively read this kind of the text.

    I think one of the best way to may be exemplify this is just to offer you an example from one of the favorite part of my day, which is when I get to read bed time stories to my own children.

    A couple months ago, I brought home a really fun poetry book that I thought it would be great for us to read together so we’re reading at night and my eight year old is reading the poem. He knows all of the words in there and the first 2/3 of every poem, he really gets it and he’s smiling and kind of laughing but at the end of every poem, it kind of has a shift and a little bit of a metaphor at the end of the poem. I realized that I was still laughing at the end of the poem and he wasn’t.

    Even though he could read every word, he wasn’t unpacking the metaphors yet. So there is a certain degree of the background knowledge that he had to have and when I was able to provide that background knowledge and talk to him about what this double meaning is actually all about. Then he was able to make sense of it but we have to remember that this doesn’t just apply to eight year old who are reading poetry with their moms at 8 o’clock at night. It also means that anybody who is working with a text that unfamiliar to them or may have vocabulary that they’re unfamiliar with, may have text structures that they aren’t certain about will encounter the same kind of difficulty so that makes a difference.

    Another example is when I have often times put graphic novel in front of teachers during some kind of workshop for professional development, you should see the look on their faces because a lot of adults may be haven’t read a lot of graphic novels so they not quite sure Where do I start, What do I read next, Do I read the think in the bubbles, How is this work? So I’ll tell you I’ve had accesses, experiences and background knowledge and understanding some of these structural elements of any given texts that qualitative complexity is dialed up. So we need to think about that.

    The third component of Text Complexity is also another area that I’ve felt really validated in. The Reader and Task element of this, essentially let’s us know that the teacher is so crucial and making sure that the tasks that he or she’s asking students to do with that text is a really good match.

    In just a bit I’ll talk about how we can use this matching as a way to dial up or dial down the Text Complexity. When we think about the marriage between reader and task. Leaning purpose becomes absolutely crucial. As teachers, we must know what our purpose for teaching is, what we want students to learn and what our purpose for putting that particular text in front of the student is because when we have a clear understanding of that purpose, I think we’re much more likely to be able to connect the Reader and the Task in really beneficial ways.

    So now that we kind of broken down this three components of Text Complexity, I want to go back to the classroom and I want us to spend the end of this webinar kind of thinking about what it actually means to teach with Text Complexity in mind.

    The first thing is that if I’m teaching with the Text Complexity in mind, I have to know my students. I have to know what their background knowledge is. I do have to know about their Lexile Score, what their reading ability is but I can’t make all of my determinations based on that single criteria anymore. That is what I think it’s so wonderful about the 3 prongs approach to Text Complexity is that it gives us an opportunity to see readers in a more multifaceted way and it gives us a chance to see our text in a more multifaceted way.

    So, we have to know our students, their background knowledge, their vocabulary needs, the kind of structures that they’re familiar with and the one that they’re unfamiliar with. When we know that we’ll be able to offer them and give them texts that are just right for them, texts that allow them to continue to grow as readers.

    The second thing that we really can do in order to make sure that we are adhering to Text Complexity in purposeful ways is to have a good match between that task and text. My personal philosophy on the texts that I have and use in class is that the more difficult the skill that I’m teaching or the more complex the concept is that I want to teach, the less difficult the actual text need to be, the more accessible that actual text need to be.

    For example, when I’m working with seniors who are studying literary theory, which is something that is often done in colleges and universities and the way that literary critics look at literature, I don’t introduce that to them with Beowulf or Shakespeare or even Catcher in The Rye instead we start with Nursery Rhymes because Nursery Rhymes are really accessible pieces of text. They’re short, you can re-read them many times, you can unpack them very quickly and what it allows them to do is it allows them to practice these complex thinking and conceptual skills with very accessible text and once they own those skills then we start to dial up the complexity of the texts. That’s a good match between them. It’s important for us to remember the more difficult the task, the more difficult of the concept, the more accessible the text.

    Finally, I think that there is a mistake that I know, I’ve certainly made in the classroom and I think it’s one that I really learned from which is this idea of trying to walk through the exit door that instead of thinking about starting right where my students are at and scaffolding them toward some end or exit point that I want them to achieve. Sometimes I get nervous. I get nervous when I looked at those Standards. I get nervous when I think about the expectation that we have for our students and I think if I start too easy or if I start too slow or if I start with the texts that are too short, we’ll never going to get there. What I have learned is that if I put texts that are too difficult, those exit level texts. If I put exit level text in front of my students at the beginning before they’re ready, it’s completely unproductive. They’re not able to work with them. They’re not able to learn from them and instead it’s so much more effective to start slow, to start with accessible text and to work up consistently work up. When they get to those really complex texts, they feel confident, they feel ready and they’re really able to flourish.

    Now that we have demystified a little bit of Text Complexity, broken down those three major components, done a little bit of thinking about how we might consider implementing this in the classroom, I want to offer a few reflective prompts that might get you to think about how to apply this to your own teaching scenario.

    The first prompt reads: one way to start thinking about matching text and reader is to begin with what you already have. So, take a text that you teach frequently. Now consider how you would make that text more complex by changing the tasks. This is one way that we dial up Text Complexity. We change the task not the text.

    A second prompt for you to think about, now take a task that is often very challenging for students. Think about how you could scaffold it with more accessible text. So, I want you to think about shorter texts. I want you to think about non-traditional texts. Are there ways that you can match text with task in that way?

    Finally, another way to increase complexity is in juxtaposing or comparing texts. So how could you take a central text that you have in your class? How could you make it more complex to comparison, conversely? How could you make it more accessible?

    These are some good questions for us to think about, for us to ponder, perhaps for us to collaborate with others on as well.

    Thank you for joining me with this addition of Let’s Chat Cores. Just a couple of reminders, Text Complexity is relevant to all readers, all teachers. Text Complexity is never determined by a single characteristic. Teachers must make purposeful matches between text, task and reader.

    Thank you so much for learning with me today. It’s always a pleasure for me to be able to unpack my thinking and share my Teacher’s voice and try to make sense of all this Common Core work. If you enjoyed this webinar, you may enjoy some of the others that you can find on and also look forward to the upcoming blogs and more webinars in this series. Thanks again!

School Details

Johnston Senior High School
6501 Northwest 62nd Avenue
Johnston IA 50131
Population: 1548

Data Provided By:



Sarah Brown Wessling
English Language Arts / 10 11 12 / Teacher


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