Opening the Door to Text Complexity

Since the dawn of Common Core text complexity as an educational construct has gained so much attention it is nearly in the vocabulary of our society. Teachers rely on text leveling beyond instructional purposes. Some students can only select certain books from their school libraries. And parents compare children’s reading levels like trophies.

For those who haven’t fully grasped text complexity, don’t feel left out. It is far more than the quantitative measures of reading levels, often indicated by a number or letter. Once a text is assigned a level, qualitative measures such as genre, sentence structure and academic content and vocabulary are also considered. These more reader dependent indicators play a role in the ability to deeply comprehend and interact with a text.

Recent literacy goals focus on students climbing the ladder of text complexity; a well-meaning analogy literacy leaders deigned to support the instructional purpose of students reading more challenging texts and improving the over all quality of reading instruction. However, text complexity is not linerar and reading is not a destination. This flawed description of literacy development focuses on the text as the mechanism for growing – not the reader. While texts clearly vary in difficulty, it is the individual doing the reading, thinking and growing.

Instead, let’s envision the reader opening a door of complexity. When you open your front door, your entire house and the memories wrapped up inside reside behind you. Background knowledge or schema are critical to understanding more complex texts and ideas. For example, even proficient readers without a medical degree struggle to comprehend a medical journal, whereas doctors have schema and vocabulary to interpret new ideas within these texts. Students who encounter a new idea will struggle more than those with a house of schema behind them. Conversely, a reader with deep background knowledge of a particular topic can encounter a text with greater complexity on that topic – it is the reader we must focus on, not the text.

It is also the reading teacher we must trust. The ability to determine the new skills a reader needs is critical to opening the door of complexity.  Understanding the cusp of where a reader is and how to move them forward allows readers to encounter increasingly more complex texts and develop skills to understand them. It is not simply moving up the ladder of text complexity, but providing the instruction based on clearly defined needs from the reader.

Another problematic assumption of the ladder suggests that once a reader achieves a certain level of complexity, all others below are subpar.  Just because one level of complexity is mastered we should not discredit the ability to deeply engage with texts that have a lower reading level.  Some of the most profound texts are picture books that a fifth grader could easily decode and basically comprehend – but the deep contextual and social implication of these texts might get overlooked.  

But why are we climbing the ladder when we could be opening doors? Why are we pushing young readers up and up and up, when we should be opening the world of books to them?  The focus on the text takes us away from the focus on the reader.  When we look at complexity through the lens of the reader, we recognize that complexity depends on the reader.  Understanding our readers’ backgrounds and experiences, providing direct scaffolding of skills to encounter new texts and regarding all rich, complex texts, regardless of their lexile levels is  critical to developing literacy.  No longer can our ladder be a trophy, but our books can be opportunities to open up meaningful literacy experiences for all readers.

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