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Text complexity in the Language Arts classroom, a school librarian’s perspective

Last week, NPR published a piece online to accompany an on air piece from All Things Considered regarding text complexity in assigned student reading and the reading students do in their free time. That piece is available here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/06/11/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-in-school-and-out. I would encourage you (against conventional wisdom) to read the comments.

While I realize the piece is mostly addressing reading in high school, the new CCSS emphasis on text complexity affects education at all levels, and the piece has been causing a whirlwind of thoughts in my mind over the dual need to prepare students to read, interpret, and analyze complex text and to prepare them to be active and engaged lifelong learners. Both are truly needed if we are to produce students who will be highly functional contributing members of society.  The key is figuring out how to do one without losing the other.

So first, let’s address the issue of assigning a text complexity ‘score’ to any particular piece of writing. Leaving aside my issues with their misuse, there are two main leveling scores in common use (ie, you don’t need extra funds to access the score). The first is Renaissance Learning’s Book Level score. Here, from their web site, is an explanation of how they assign a Book Level using the ATOS system:

“ATOS is the product of an intensive research process and takes into account the most important predictors of text complexity—average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage. It is reported on a grade-level scale so that both student achievement and books share the same easy-to-interpret metric.”

More information can be found here: http://www.renlearn.com/default.aspx. The second is the Lexile Measure, explained on their web site:

“A Lexile text measure is based on two strong predictors of how difficult a text is to comprehend: word frequency and sentence length. Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered.”

More information about Lexile Measures is available here: http://www.lexile.com/ .

As a middle school librarian, I believe that the Lexile statement addresses the ‘elephant in the room’ – measuring word and sentence difficulty only addresses one part of the equation. For instance, a book addressed in the NPR article, Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins has a Book Level measurement of 5.3, which means that Renaissance Learning’s ATOS system judges it to be at a 5th grade reading level. The Lexile level for Hunger Games is 810L, which, according to my state’s reporting of end of year reading performance, puts it solidly within 4th grade reading level. While I am sure there are individual fourth and fifth graders who are capable of fully understanding and internalizing the main issues and themes found in Hunger Games, most of the students I’ve worked with don’t begin to be able to do this until 7th grade. Incidentally, this is the grade level where our class sets of Hunger Games reside.

The language arts teachers in my building constantly strive to find and include novels, plays, poems, short stories, biographies, etc. that will be ENGAGING to their students. If the students aren’t engaged, they won’t be learning anything. Does this mean that everything used in class needs to be at a reduced reading level, or that nothing at a high reading level can be engaging? No. It means that it is the responsibility of the teacher and the librarian to seek out and use a variety of resources so that the students are exposed to materials that are either intrinsically engaging at their developmental level, or are made engaging by the way they are taught.

I’ll end with an example from this past school year. One day, one of my most creative language arts teachers called me with a request for materials that filled my geeky librarian heart with glee. She wanted articles and reference selections on the following topics: the history of science fiction literature, nuclear weapons, Ba’al, Sara Teasdale (poet), the Manhattan Project, and Ray Bradbury (among several others.) You see, she was going to be teaching her class using Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains.” She both wanted to make sure her students would be familiar with the background information needed to really understand the story and to make sure that they were exposed to rigorous and complex texts (since the story is part of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which has a lexile level of 740 and is well below what she was advised to use with her students.) The students formed groups which worked together to explore the articles on a particular topic and become ‘class experts,’ giving a presentation on their topic to the rest of the class.

Judging students’ learning, and their ability to read, interpret, and analyze complex text based on just the level of difficulty of the words and sentences in a reading is not just an incomplete picture. It dismisses the time and effort of both the teacher and the students.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. Next time I will discuss text complexity and students’ free reading choices.


  1. This is such a difficult topic! The English teacher in me agrees with those who say there is value in struggling and mastering a complex text, like Shakespeare or Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN. The librarian in me wants kids to love to read…even though I know some of them just won't. A point no one has addressed here is that in some districts (especially here in Texas), teachers are not allowed to use novels for whole- or even partial-class use if they haven't been approved by a district text committee. In the district I worked for in San Antonio, the vetting process for such books was so extensive that few teachers had the time to fill out the paperwork, so many great books never got approved for classroom use. We had to fight to get ENDER'S GAME on the HS list, much less more current YA or “literary fiction” titles. Modern books with “controversial” topics tend to get challenged by parents more often these days than the old classics (regardless of their content), at least that's been my experience. Not sure how coherent this comment is, but that's my two cents 🙂

  2. Hi Lauren! That sounds really discouraging! I was surprised this year to hear how some of my state's school districts were dealing with this same issue – by requiring the school library to purchase copies of all examplar texts…so strange. I know we have a procedure the teachers have to go through to have a text approved for whole class teaching. Fortunately the texts on the pre-approved list were not altered for this past school year. I think that was a matter of economy. The schools can't afford to go out and purchase whole new classroom sets of novels.

    Do you get asked to help fill out the paperwork for approval?

    Also, speaking of books with controversial topics, someday I should make a list for everyone of what I read in AP Eanglish 25+ years ago. Yikes!

  3. The librarians do help some with the approval process, but it's mostly up to the ELA teachers b/c the books are ordered through the departmental budget and not the library budget.

    As for books with controversial topics–I taught 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD, OEDIPUS, HAMLET, Dante's INFERNO, A DOLL'S HOUSE, TURN OF THE SCREW, HEART OF DARKNESS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, BLESS ME ULTIMA, and INVISIBLE MAN as an AP Lit teacher…the only books I ever had challenged were BLESS ME ULTIMA and INVISIBLE MAN–the two “newest” ones. No one seems to care that Oedipus has sex with his mother or Hamlet spends the entire play contemplating suicide because they're on everyone's list of classics…

  4. Wow, I totally forgot about Heart of Darkness! *adds to list*

    The most memorable things we read were: A Clockwork Orange, The Bluest Eye, and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.

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