Text Complexity: We All Need to Understand the Issue

  • Posted on: 22 November 2013
  • By: Tina McCoy

We now live in a world where information is at our fingertips, but understanding is often superficial. It has never been more critical that our students acquire the literacy skills they need to create their own meaning from a wide range of complex texts. Perhaps this is why increased text complexity is so heavily emphasized in the Common Core State Standards. Students will be expected to read, discuss and write about texts at higher levels across the curriculum. Given this, how many educators have a firm understanding of text complexity and how instructional practices must change in order for our schools to accelerate the reading performance of all students? Unfortunately, the issue of text complexity is frequently relegated to a sideline topic: the responsibility of reading specialists, elementary classroom teachers, or English teachers to ‘figure out’.  Nothing could be further from effective. Every educator must understand the instructional implications of increased text complexity, and not only those who provide direct instruction to students.  Anyone who seeks to lead this profound shift in education must have a firm grasp on the issue of text complexity and how teachers at all levels and in all subjects must learn new strategies to promote students’ abilities to successfully grapple with and comprehend more challenging texts.

Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp provides a clear picture of text complexity and the instructional implications arising from the new expectations of the Common Core State Standards.  Concisely, and with compelling examples that bring the issue to life, the authors describe the three components of text complexity, the appropriate matching of readers to texts and tasks, and the benefits of close reading of complex texts. Fisher, Frey and Lapp are very clear in expressing that simply 'assigning' complex reading does not constitute teaching students to successfully read increasingly complex texts. In many ways, they challenge conventional thinking regarding how teachers must appropriately match readers with texts. At the same time, they offer user-friendly examples of tasks and instructional strategies that will boost students’ capabilities to successfully engage in literacy activities at higher and higher levels.  This book has just the right amount of technical information to be instructive and inspiring to teachers and school leaders of all types. Given the relevance of text complexity to all ages and disciplines, this book is a great choice for a full-faculty book read.

Caveat: Reading this book will not be sufficient to build the skills of educators across an organization, so don’t rely too heavily on this text as a way to leverage improvement within your school system.  However, it does have tremendous potential to be a catalyst for change if combined with leadership, targeted professional learning activities, and a culture of collaboration and support.