A text complexity survival kit

 //  Jun 3, 2013

A text complexity survival kit

In Storyworks magazine, which is read by about 500,000 kids in grades 3-5, we’ve always been a little smug about our nonfiction stories, which we POUR ourselves into, and lavish with love and attention until they are thrilling and fascinating and packed with great information. But when Common Core popped up, we panicked a little, wondering if our stories were going to be useful. Engaging? Yes. Challenging? Absolutely, with links to great science and social studies topics.

But (here’s where we got worried): were they “complex” enough?

To answer this question, we delved into the world of text complexity. And because we are complete and total language arts geeks, we actually thought this adventure was really fun. We talked to experts. We pored over the standards. We chatted with our go-to teacher advisors. We ordered coffee and cupcakes and sat around talking about all of this late into the night.

And we realized that YES indeed, our stories were absolutely complex. We also came away with a pretty good sense of what constitutes a complex text. We learned that complexity goes beyond just higher Lexile. In fact a story with a lower level can be quite complex. Some other factors:

  • A nonlinear structure
  • An unusual point of view (second person is particularly challenging)
  • Figurative language
  • Challenging vocabulary, particularly in a new “domain” or subject area
  • A topic that is outside of a students’ area of knowledge

In addition, a huge issue is the “reader task.” Just what will you expect your students to do after they’ve read the piece? A challenging reading task, like comparing a nonfiction story to a poem, can turn a simple piece into a complex reading experience.

We’ve created nifty interactive PDFs to help our teachers see the quantitative and qualitative complexity factors of a particular story (http://storyworks.scholastic.com/home/storyworks-and-common-core). Scroll down this page and you’ll find our “Text Complexity Tool,” which shows how one of our most popular stories, about the Japanese tsunami, meets the criteria for complexity.

I’d love to know what you think.