Close Reading Text Complexity

Close Reading Part 4: Text Complexity

While going through the close reading process, I heard about the idea of text complexity. This seemed to be pretty straight forward to me: get the appropriate leveled readers/books/excerpts for your kids. However, as I went through all of the information, I was shocked by how much that actually entails.

Text needs to be complex enough to be worthy of a close read. I will not be able to pull out many different themes, text-dependent questions etc. from something like Hop on Pop. I need it to be complex. (I swear I almost just typed complexer. I need a nap.)

We were told in our state-wide training that the complexity of our texts does not prepare students for college. They gave us a statistic that stated “the average length of sentences in  K-8 textbooks has declined from 20 to 14 words” and even worse “what was once a 5th grade level textbook is now being used in 8th grade. What is being used in 12th grade was once used in 7th grade.” Wow. Really? That seems to be a huge shift in the complexity of the texts we are using in our classrooms. Not only has the vocabulary and content complexity decreased, but also the number of words on a page. Furthermore, college level textbooks have either stayed the same or increased in difficulty. That means our kiddos graduating from high school are not prepared for the complexity they will meet in college.

I found this picture from Achieve the Core that explains it really well.

It shows how the gap gets bigger and bigger as the grades get higher. This picture alone helped me decide to stop rolling my eyes and take this seriously.

Now if you are like me (and most of you are probably better than me), you don’t understand the Lexile numbering system. I have exclusively used the Fontas and Pinnell guided reading A-Z system. I have seen Lexile numbers but they didn’t mean a lot to me.

This video helped explain to me what a Lexile number is and what it’s purpose is.

So since I had to research Lexile numbers I thought I better look into text complexity a little bit more. Hopefully what I have learned will help you as well!

Text Complexity:

                                       Picture source:

I have seen this graphic above about a million times by now but it helps to show you the three biggies of text complexity.

1. Quantitative Measures of Complexity:

This covers the statistical aspects of the text: sentence length, sentence complexity, number of high frequency words used compared to higher vocabulary words etc. Usually this stuff is all done with a computer which makes me feel better about life.

2. Qualitative Measures of Complexity:

This covers things such as levels of meaning, author’s purpose, text structures, text features, knowledge demands etc.

3. Read and Task Considerations:

This covers things such as background knowledge, motivation, interests etc. This is left up to us teachers to discern for our students.

Those are the three considerations for determining text complexity but I needed something that helped me see how that all came together in the real world. has a cool free feature called Find A Book. When you type in that link you will see a screen that looks like the one below.

If you know the Lexile number of a book you want to use in your class, you can type that in, or if you are like me and didn’t really pay attention to those numbers you can select a grade and how difficult you want the book to be.

I typed in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever because my 3rd graders LOVED those. They always seemed a bit harder to me complexity wise. The Lexile score for that book is 1060L (the L stands for Lexile). Seeing as a third graders range 450-790, this would be high for most of them. The subject matter, however, puts the age range at 8-10. It really depends on your reader. This also showed me that Lexile is only ONE piece we should consider when picking books for our students.

I discovered that you have to look at more than just the quantitative Lexile number. For example, if you enter in the book Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the Lexile number is 770L. That means that technically a 3rd or 4th grader could read the text and comprehend it. Now I don’t know about you but I really don’t want any 4th graders I know to read a book that has phrases like : “sharpen a stick at both ends” and “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart…”. Okay, I’m freaking myself out, I better stop!

This is why the qualitative piece is so important! The themes in this book are very complex and somewhat disturbing so the age range is 12-19+. I still hope no one would read this with a 12 year old!

The structure and set-up of a book can really increase it’s complexity. This is one area where I have a slight problem. I am too type A to have murky waters in picking books. However, I’m going to have to put on some waders and deal because considering all of these things are what’s best for my students.

These are the steps I took:

1. Figure out the quantitative measures of the text by using something on the computer like

2. Look at the themes, structure, purpose etc. of the text.

3. Think about the reader and what knowledge they will bring to the table.

4. Fill out a text complexity rubric to determine best placement.

My state created a rubric for text complexity but there is also one on that is pretty helpful. Click on this link to get it: Text Complexity Rubric.

This is something that I will continue to look at and learn about as I go. It doesn’t seem to be clear cut to me. However, what is clear cut is that not everything I was using in my room was complex enough! I will be better!

This video fits me perfectly after researching text complexity forever. Enjoy!


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Meet the author
Cassie Tabrizi
Cassie Tabrizi
After being in elementary education for 14 years, and as founder of Create-Abilities, Cassie is passionate about helping fellow educators empower their teaching.
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