Unraveling Text Complexity

Learn about the true difference between qualitative and quantitative evaluations and how this may affect your choice of texts.

By Matthew Spinogatti


Tangled Text

How do you decide which books or resources to utilize in your classroom? As the concept of text complexity spreads, the decision process for choosing appropriate texts for the classroom may become more difficult. This is due to the fact that the newly rediscovered dedication to text complexity has forced educators to call into question which texts are being incorporated into the classroom.

For anyone who has recently attended professional development on the Common Core, the term text complexity will not sound foreign. But what are the new expectations for understanding text complexity and what is the difference between qualitative and quantitative evaluations when it comes to texts? This article will explore the new expectations for text complexity as well as how to assist in matching readers to the appropriate texts.

Quantitative Evaluation

Book levels have long been gauged by factors that have nothing to do with true text complexity. Instead, reading levels have been based on measureable factors such as word choice, sentence and syllable length, and vocabulary. Combined, these factors are referred to as the quantitative measurements for text complexity.

That is not to say that these factors are not important. If students confront too much difficulty in these areas, their reading will not be fluid, or they may even lack basic comprehension. In addition, research has consistently shown that the number one way to increase individual vocabulary is to read challenging texts. Clearly, the quantitative is important, but it cannot stand alone.

Qualitative Evaluation

By using a qualitative approach to gauging text complexity, a different set of factors are taken into account. The primary feature is level of meaning. This takes into consideration relevant themes, topics, and base knowledge needed in order to comprehend the meaning of the text.

A prime example of this difference can be seen in a novel such as The Outsiders. The sentence structure and vocabulary would most likely be gauged at a fifth-grade level. However, the topics, themes, and images described are meant for a more mature audience. The qualitative evaluation increases the complexity of the text.

Matching Readers with Texts

When taking both the quantitative and the qualitative evaluations into account, educators are much more capable of matching the appropriate texts to their student population. However, these two factors alone are not enough. The often overlooked variables that come into play when matching readers with texts lies in motivation, knowledge, and previous life experiences. In other words, we have to know our students. It becomes imperative to have a deep understanding of your student population if you are to find texts that will be meaningful to them—texts that hold the appropriate level of meaning and can make an impact.

Providing the Purpose

In order to get your pupils to appropriately engage with a text in a meaningful way, it is essential for you, the educator, to provide the appropriate framework of purpose. What is the intended learning outcome? Why should they read this book? What problem or issue are they responding to?

The best way to address these needs is to have a well-established essential question or big idea. This should be clear and in sight at all times in order to consistently remind the pupils of the focus. Also, a good amount of front-loading is critical. Use videos, images, newspaper articles, or any type of media that will provide a level of understanding necessary to become fully engaged with a text.

By incorporating qualitative, quantitative, and meaning-related considerations into your decision-making process, students will be more engaged in the material, and more prepared to tackle complex texts.

Additional Resources

Hallmark of the Common CoreThe Importance of Text Dependent QuestionsMark As You Go