Understanding Text Complexity – Qualitative Measures

In the last post, I discussed the quantitative measures of text complexity that a teacher must understand when selecting texts for classroom use.

In this post, we describe the next important consideration for selecting a “just right” text for students. These are the qualitative factors of the text.

Examining the Level of Complexity

The first element to consider when reviewing the text complexity of a book is the richness of the plot and the levels of meaning found in the text.

For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels could read at a simplistic level as a story about the travels of a guy who visited a strange land called Lilliput.  However, Gulliver’s Travels – as it was originally written by Swift -rates as a complex text because of the parody and satire that it contains. Most unsophisticated readers would not understand the deeper meaning presented in these genres.

As a result of the complexity of Gulliver’s Travels as an adult political satire, we would generally reserve this book for high school students. Students would need to understand that the author’s intent of the story was to satirize English politics of the 1720s. Students would most likely need the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher to grasp the complex content.

The Lexile Level of Gulliver’s Travels would be a score of 1300 or an ATOS reading level of 13.5. This book is advanced and is more appropriate for advanced high school students or college students.

Examining the Text Structure, Organization and Purpose

Next, we examine the text’s structure and organization and whether a reader would be a good match for this type of structure or organization.

For example, a text which contained a large amount of unfamiliar dialect would be more difficult to understand than one written in the dialect with which the reader is familiar. The same goes for the sophistication of the vocabulary used in the text. This might not be a good match for a class that served a large number of English language learners.

Likewise, a text told from an unusual viewpoint would also be more difficult to understand for some students.

An example of a complex text that might be difficult for students to understand is William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and The Fury. Since Faulkner wrote this book in a stream of consciousness narrative style, some readers would find it difficult to follow as a reader. As a result, the teacher might decide it was not a good text to reader match.

Woman reading a book at a desk
Analyzing Qualitative Elements of a Text to Determine Text Complexity

Matching Cultural Understandings and Background Knowledge

Finally, the last thing to consider when determining the text complexity of a particular book is to identify what prior knowledge the reader must bring to the text. You will also need to examine the cultural understandings that the text will require.

The more limited the reader’s background knowledge the higher the level of text difficulty the book would bring to readers. In general, texts written in a literal, contemporary style are easier to read. Texts containing a large amount of figurative, ironic, ambiguous, old fashioned or unfamiliar dialect.

Highly specialized text in a subject where the reader does not have background knowledge results in higher text complexity. For example, unless you work in the mortgage industry or trained in this specialized area, you probably found it difficult to understand the 2 inch stack of mortgage documents place before you when you bought a home or rented an apartment.

Although the words in the document were probably not difficult, the industry jargon increased the text complexity level. Therefore, this text would have been highly complex for you as a reader. That is because you lacked background knowledge in this subject area. Therefore, the text would be difficult to understand for you.

Rubrics for analyzing literary and informational text will help you determine what texts might contain higher levels of complexity. These texts might be “just right” to stretch your students but not overwhelm them. In the final post in this series, I will discuss the Reader and the Task. This details what a teacher needs to consider these elements in his or her analysis of text appropriateness and complexity.