Teachers in today's classrooms struggle every day to design instructional interventions that would build students' reading skills and strategies in order to ensure their comprehension of complex texts. Text complexity can be determined in both qualitative and quantitative ways. In this article, the authors describe various innovative professional development efforts and collaborative conversations around the use of qualitative measures for determining text complexity. Such innovative approaches can enhance teachers' ability to plan for their instruction more effectively and take on the roles of decision-maker and collaborator.
"I think about all of the hours I spent leveling my library," recalls 3rdgrade teacher Emily Armenta. "I put colored stickers on every book I had. The result was that students could generally find a book they could read, but it didn't really help me figure out what they still needed to learn."
Teachers "level" their libraries in order to match students with appropriate texts, hoping to make a difference in students' learning (Glasswell & Ford, 2011). Yet these quantitative measures failed to yield instructional interventions to help students read increasingly complex texts. Innovative teachers today focus on the qualitative aspects of text complexity to determine what makes a given text difficult so that they can design appropriate instruction around the text, and build students' skills and strategies in reading.
Understanding Text Complexity
There are both quantitative and qualitative ways to examine text complexity (Gunning, 2003). In general, quantitative measures focus on aspects of the text that a computer algorithm can count, including words per sentence, the number of syllables, and whether or not the words appear on a given list such as the Dale-Chall. A number of different proprietary formulas are used to determine the quantitative difficulty level. Two of the most common are Lexile by Metametrics and SourceRater by Educational Testing Service. Both of these systems, like the 100 or so other formulas, yield a number that is designed to indicate how difficult a given text is. These formulas are reasonably effective in determining whether or not a student who reads at the given level will understand the text. For example, Tuck, Everlasting (Babbit, 1975) has a Lexile of 770, suggesting that most students at the 4th-grade level should understand the text. Of course, disagreement exists about what 4th-grade (or any grade) readers should be able to do. However, that is not a problem with the quantitative tools themselves, but rather with expectations for reading ability.
Yet these quantitative tools do not provide information about what made the text complex. This requires a more nuanced examination of the text by a human reader evaluating the text difficulty qualitatively to determine which aspects of the text contribute to its complexity and then determine which of these aspects need to be taught.
Some educators worry that qualitative measures of text complexity are too subjective to be of use. After all, ratings may differ based on the rater and his or her knowledge of a specific group of students. Through professional development and collaborative conversations,...