New Teacher Advocate — Winter 2013
Change Language:
Preparing For Text Complexity
Arleen P. Mariotti

The common core standards place a strong emphasis on the role of text complexity. In fact, one of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of increasing difficulty as they progress through school. The expectation is that by the time a student graduates, he should be able to independently read and comprehend complex texts of the type commonly found in college and the work place (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010).

How is text complexity defined?

To determine text complexity, the common core standards use a three-part model:

Commonly determined by a readability formula, such as Flesch-Kincaid, Fry, or the Lexile framework.

Qualitative dimensions of text complexity examine a range of factors, such as text purpose or levels of meaning, text structure, text organization, language conventionality and clarity, and the demands on students’ prior knowledge. A rubric for evaluating the qualitative dimensions of text complexity is available. (

Reader and Task dimensions look at what the student brings to the text and the task(s) required of the student. These include student motivation, background knowledge, purpose for reading, complexity of task assigned, and complexity of questions to be asked regarding the text. Teachers must know whether students can independently read the grade level, discipline-specific materials and, if not, what supports and strategies they will need.

What can you do to prepare for the common core standards?

1. Become comfortable with the common core standards and information on text complexity. The standards offer a progression of knowledge and skills in all content areas to prepare students to graduate from high school and be ready for college and careers. The standards have been adopted by a majority of states and many private schools—possibly having a great influence on curriculum and instruction for a long time to come. The resources listed contain overviews, tools, lesson plans, and assessments for teachers and overviews and resources for parents.

2. Develop your students’ vocabularies. Vocabulary is closely linked to concept development and is highly related to reading comprehension. Vocabulary instruction demands a rich language environment and should be taught directly through explicit methods. Explicit instruction should include active student engagement and repeated exposure to vocabulary in a variety of contexts (Hiebert, 2012; Shanahan et al., 2012). In addition to teaching specific words, it is important to include the study of morphology and word parts, such as prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

3. Focus on developing your students’ background knowledge. Teachers need to activate students’ prior knowledge and build background for those who lack it before introducing new content. This requires teachers to make very explicit connections between what has been taught in the past and the new concepts to be learned. Common core demands that students connect their real lives to classroom concepts through applications, examples, and writing assignments. Teachers cannot build “more” background knowledge until their students have acquired the building blocks of basic information.

4. Build students’ reading stamina. Reading stamina is the ability to focus and read independently for extended periods of time without being distracted and without distracting others. Elementary students should strive for 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading time and secondary students should work toward 40 minutes. Begin with simple strategies, such as:

• Set a goal (start with 15-20 minutes) with your students for them to sit and read independently without interruption. Start small and build to your target reading time.

• Encourage each child to keep a graph or log of his or her independent reading times.

5. Explicitly teach students how to identify the critical ideas that are central to understanding the text. Determining importance is a strategy readers use to discriminate between what information in a text is important versus what information may be interesting but not necessary for understanding. This strategy is essential to the comprehension of complicated nonfiction text. Teachers need to explicitly and systematically teach students how to find the most important information as they read.

All teachers will have challenges in implementing the common core standards. Getting ready requires preparing ourselves as well as our students.


common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010).

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Retrieved from

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). Text complexity. Principal Leadership, 12(5), 62-64.

Hiebert, E. H. (2012). 7 Actions that teachers can take right now: Text complexity. Retrieved from

Shanahan, T., Fisher D., & Frey, N. (2012). The challenge of challenging text. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 58-62.


Common core and text complexity: Your state’s department of education website: McGraw-Hill Education Online: Engage NY:

Vocabulary building:

Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. J. (2010). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Kame’enui, E., & Baumann, J. F. (Eds.). (2010). Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice, 2nd ed. New York: The Guilford Press.

Spencer, B. H., & Guillaume, A. M. (2009). 35 strategies for developing content area vocabulary. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Background knowledge development:

Fisher, D., & Frey. N. (2009). Background knowledge: The missing piece of the comprehension puzzle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Building students’ reading stamina: Reading Rockets. Building reading stamina. Http:// Enmer, A. Reading stamina. (2011). Http://

Dr. Mariotti is a retired classroom teacher, staff development trainer, reading specialist, and program evaluator. She teaches reading courses at the University of South Florida and the Educators Preparation Institute at Hillsborough Community College.

Dr. Schwartz has been a classroom teacher, district trainer, intern supervisor, college instructor, service learning project coordinator, and reading specialist. She is a Middle School Reading Coach in Hillsborough County and teaches reading courses for the Educators Preparation Institute at Hillsborough Community College.