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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 19

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    EL Education

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: What are all the considerations that go into determining the right level of text complexity for my students? 

Over the next two weeks we are going to answer some questions about close reading, but before we do that, we want to spend some time in this week’s post exploring text complexity and the choices that went into the texts your students are reading. The texts in the curriculum have already been chosen for you, but there’s a lot to be gained for you as a teacher in understanding a bit more about why they were chosen so that you can approach your choice of texts during other parts of the school day with an equally sharp eye. Text choice is critically important for helping students meet standards so its worth close attention. 

Students deserve to read beautifully written and worthy texts. If it is literature, let it be great literature. If it is informational text, let it teach students new words and new ideas in sophisticated ways. Let it, always, be worth their time and effort to read.

Determining Text Complexity

It is easy to think—especially for those who are not teachers—that text complexity boils down to a number. If the Lexile measure says it’s a third-grade text, then it must be a third-grade text. Right? Well ... not necessarily.

Teachers know that determining text complexity is itself a complex process. What makes a text complex? Three main factors determine a text’s complexity: quantitative measures, qualitative measures, and reader and task considerations. The Lexile measure considers only quantitative factors such as word frequency and sentence length, and that’s not enough to truly determine how your students will experience a text.

We’re not going to delve into all of these factors in any comprehensive way; however, we do want to provide you with some detail on how we assessed texts along qualitative measures because we think this will be the most transferable for you in your own efforts to select appropriate texts for your students beyond our ELA curriculum.

Qualitative Measures of Complexity

Once a text has been assessed for complexity using quantitative measures (e.g., Flesch-Kincaid, Lexile), which is easily determined using computer programs or online searches, we use a simple tool that we call the Four Quadrants of Qualitative Text Complexity (see below) to help us determine qualitative complexity. At any given grade level, most texts will be complex in one or more of the following areas: meaning, structure, language features, and knowledge demands (these four factors were derived from Appendix A of the CCSS). These “Four Quadrants” help us assess the specific ways in which a text is complex. Once we have determined how the text will challenge students, we can focus instruction to offer support in those areas as they read.

In the Four Quadrants table below we have analyzed the following sample of text from the text Come On, Rain! (Kindergarten, Module 2):

Up and down the block,

cats pant,

heat wavers off tar patches in the broiling alleyway.

Miz Grace and Miz Vera bend, tending beds of drooping lupines.

Not a sign of my friends Liz or Rosemary,

not a peep from my pal Jackie-Joyce.

I stare out over the rooftops,

past chimneys, into the way off distance.

And that’s when I see it coming,

clouds rolling in,

gray clouds, bunched and bulging under a purple sky.

A creeper of hope circles ‘round my bones.

“Come on, rain!” I whisper.

Source: From Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse. Text ©1999 by Karen Hesse. Illustrations ©1999 by Jon Muth.

With this example, it becomes easier to see how the complexities within a particular text emerge by looking closely at these qualitative factors.

What about Reader and Task Considerations?

With the reader and task layer of determining text complexity, we consider what students are being asked to do with the text, as well as the potential needs of specific groups of learners. What is the purpose of the text in this module? What are students being asked to do? How much support is provided in working with this text? What experiences have students had that might make working with this text easier (or more difficult)?

Once a text has been chosen, “Reader and Task” is the area over which we have the most control. In our curriculum, challenges that emerge when we analyze a text using the Four Quadrants of Qualitative Text Complexity are always addressed by the instruction and tasks we plan. Considerations about what may make a particular text challenging for certain groups, such as English language learners (ELLs) or students whose life experiences make the content or context of a text unfamiliar (like students who live in rural areas in the case of Come On, Rain!), are addressed either within the design of the task itself or in the Teaching Notes that accompany the lesson.

In next week’s post we’ll start to dig into helping students read complex texts like these. Stay tuned!

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: