Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Text Complexity of Popular Middle Grades Texts

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Text Complexity of Popular Middle Grades Texts

Article excerpt

With the Common Core State Standards' (CCSS) focus on text complexity, do teachers need to change the novels they are using in the classroom?

The answer is not a straightforward yes or no. We must first review the novels we teach and see how they measure up to the text complexity concepts presented in Appendix A of the standards.

A survey of 888 teachers about the texts they use in their classrooms showed that the books used in middle grades classrooms are as diverse as middle grades students themselves. We all use different books, but two books that teachers mentioned often were The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton. We looked more closely at these two texts to see how they rated on the text complexity standard.

What is Text Complexity?

Text complexity focuses on where texts fall on a scale of simple to complex. A simple text is direct and has minimal areas that can cause reader confusion; a complex text can cause the reader difficulty through complex structures, word choice, and/or hidden meanings.

A text used for instruction may be simple for one reader or complex for another based on the reader's ability level and background knowledge. Ideally, according to the CCSS, texts at the instructional level should include reading for our students as well as for independent student reading.

Figuring out if a text is appropriate for our students is not a straightforward process. It requires the consideration of multiple factors across a variety of assessments. The CCSS text complexity guidelines require three key measures:

1. Readability of the text (quantitative dimensions)

2. Qualities of the text (qualitative dimensions)

3. Characteristics of readers and the tasks we will ask them to do (Matching Reader to Text and Task)

The CCSS identify these measures with a text complexity triangle in which each concept is given equal weight and consideration.


The readability of a text is determined by a formula that analyzes word frequency and word length, along with sentence length, to get a quantitative description of a text's semantic and syntactic complexity. Computers obtain readability scores objectively. It is an attractive option because text levels can be matched to readers' levels.

The CCSS Appendix A pays particular attention to Lexile®, going as far as to realign Lexile levels to match their standards. For grades 6-8, the Lexile range provided is 955-1155. Our review of The Giver and The Outsiders indicates that neither of these texts meets the sematic or syntactic difficulty as determined by the standards. The Giver has a Lexile level of 760 that corresponds to the grade level band of grades 2-3. The Outsiders has a Lexile level of 750 and a grade level band of grades 2-3.

When we first saw that these two books were aligned with the second and third grade Lexile bands, we were concerned, as we have both taught middle grades students who have struggled with these texts. We were aware that the CCSS Appendix A states that, "the Lexile Framework, like traditional formulas, may underestimate the difficulty of texts that use simple, familiar language to convey sophisticated ideas, as is true of much high-quality fiction...." (p. 7). Knowing that our texts did not meet the quantitative readability guidelines, we next examined them on their qualitative dimensions.

Qualitative Dimensions

The qualitative dimensions describe the text based on careful reading and analysis of four areas: meaning, structure, language, and knowledge demands. Qualitative text complexity is a continuum from simple to complex. In Table 1 you can see our analysis of the texts. …

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