Why do so many adolescents struggle with content-area reading?
Page 2: Text Complexity
Adding to middle school students’ difficulty with word identification is the increased complexity of content-area textbooks. Reading experts have defined text complexity in different ways, and there are many factors that influence it. For example, college and career readiness standards (i.e., Common Core State Standards) view three interrelated components as integral to text complexity: quantitative dimensions, qualitative dimensions, and reader and task considerations.
Many teachers are familiar with quantitative dimensions of text complexity. These factors include readability aspects such as:
- Word length (e.g., simple versus multisyllabic words)
- Frequency of unfamiliar or new vocabulary terms
- Sentence length and complexity
- Text cohesion
Consider the following two text excerpts, one from an elementary level text (left) and another from a middle school text (right).
This graphic shows an open textbook, with the left leaf representing an example of typical elementary school content-area text, and the right leaf representing an example of how that same content might appear in a middle school text. The left side is titled “Elementary Text Example” and continues with a two-column text format that reads as follows: “The people who lived in the city were upset that a parking lot was going to be built over their favorite park. Many of the people got together and marched in front of city hall, holding signs to protest the new parking lot.” At the bottom of the first column is a photograph to illustrate the passage’s content. The picture shows a protest in progress with people holding signs announcing their opposition to the proposed development. The right side of the textbook is titled “Middle School Text Example.” The text reads “The citizens, frustrated at the impending destruction of their beloved park, organized an anti-parking lot protest in front of city hall.” There is no accompanying photograph or illustration.
Both examples convey the same information. However, note that the elementary level text does so using 43 short, easy-to-understand words in two sentences and is accompanied by a photo to illustrate the content. The text in the middle school example is condensed, using only 21 words and one sentence. This sentence—which contains more multisyllabic and potentially unfamiliar words—would be more difficult for some students to read and understand. Further, though the fact that the park is to be replaced by a parking lot is directly stated in the elementary example, this information is only implied in the middle school text. This would place extra pressure on students to make connections across information presented in different sources or in different places of a given text. The more inferences the reader needs to make, the more difficult the text can be to comprehend. Given the text complexity issues that this one sentence presents, it is understandable that an entire page—or chapter or unit—of text could overwhelm students.
Various qualitative aspects can affect a text’s complexity and, consequently, a reader’s comprehension. The graphic below highlights some of the differences between simple and complex texts.
This graphic shows the characteristics of a simple text and how those develop into and differ from the characteristics of a complex text. On the left side of the graphic titled “Simple Texts” is a large yellow arrow pointing to the right. Characteristics of simple texts are bulleted in the arrow as follows: simple linear structure (e.g., narratives); clear, literal language; contemporary language; simple or single themes; single perspective; common knowledge. The arrow leads to a large green rectangle titled “Complex Texts.” Characteristics of complex texts are bulleted in the rectangle as follows: multiple levels of meaning (e.g., satire, metaphor); sophisticated structure (e.g., use of flashbacks, foreshadowing); figurative, ironic, or ambiguous language; archaic or unfamiliar language; complex or multiple themes; multiple perspectives; culture- or content-specific knowledge.
In contrast to conversational language, content-area texts use academic language, which contains sophisticated, specialized, subject-specific terminology. Academic language is often used to convey abstract concepts that are harder for students to grasp or that require students to engage in more in-depth informational processing than they are used to in casual or pleasure reading. Finally, content-area texts often have high knowledge demands—assumptions that the readers have a prerequisite level of background or content knowledge. All of these facets contribute to the difficulties that students have reading and comprehending content-area texts. In the interviews below, Paola Uccelli, discusses five key ideas related to academic language and learning and the implications for classroom teachers. In the interviews below, Paola Uccelli, discusses five key ideas related to academic language and learning and the implications for classroom teachers.
Paola Uccelli, EdD
Associate Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Reader and Task Considerations
This third dimension of text complexity allows teachers to consider factors related to the individual student as well as to aspects of the reading task at hand. Individual student factors can include things like:
- Background knowledge
- Life experiences
- Cognitive abilities
- Maturity level
For example, a fifth grader who has the reading skills needed for The Hunger Games series may understand the overall plot, but may not be emotionally prepared for the poverty or violence depicted in the story or may miss the deeper political and societal points the author makes.
Similarly, teachers should consider the purpose of the reading assignment and what types of tasks the students will be expected to accomplish when choosing a text. Through carefully constructed small-group activities and class discussions, the teacher can help the fifth grader grasp the underlying themes embedded in The Hunger Games that might not be apparent if the book was read independently.
Did You Know?
College and career readiness standards typically suggest that each grade level’s curricular materials fall within a range of complexity that provides students with exposure to texts of increasing difficulty. When working with a class of middle school students who have diverse reading abilities, teachers need to provide supports for students at lower ability levels so that they can successfully learn from the texts while gradually providing resources to help them move up the continuum of complexity. Likewise, students with strong reading skills must be provided with higher-level reading materials that will offer sufficient challenges and motivation at an advanced level.