Recently, I have been reading about what makes a text complex. Why? With the plethora of books published, should we teach the using same “classics.” Also, on a personal note, when helping my own children choose books to read, I consider the appropriateness of the plot to their age.
There are three factors to consider when determining text complexity—qualitative measures, quantitative measures, as well as the reader and task. Qualitative measures of text include structure, organizational pattern, clarity of language, visual supports, stated or implied meaning, and single or multiple themes. Quantitative measures of text focus on sentence length and amount of unfamiliar words to determine the difficulty to assign a value, such as Lexile level, to the text. Reader and task factors take into consideration the reader and how a teacher expects a student to interact with the text. If a student has a high interest and knowledge of a topic, then it is easier for him/her to read a text on the topic.
The Scarlett Letter, Animal Farm, and War of the Worlds were books I read in middle school thirty years ago and are still being used today. The qualitative and quantitative measures of these books are appropriate for eight grade readers, but are they the best for reader and what is the purpose of reading them? For me with The Scarlett Letter, I recall something about a girl being an accused adulteress, having to wear the letter A on her dress, and I think burned during the Salem trials, but I cannot give you the purpose for reading it or the impact it had on my life. All I remember about Animal Farm is my teacher read it with theatrics and “Four legs good, two legs bad.” I do recall learning about the panic caused when War of the Worlds was read over radio in 1938 and wondering how people thought it was real. The book is a wonderful connection for teaching the impact of fake news with students, if the teacher creates that as part of the task. How much more interesting would it be for middle school students to read The Hunger Games to discuss a caste society and the implications on citizens? The book is not seen as a classic, but students are similar age of the main characters making it more relatable and class privilege is a current event topic. Putting the reader and the task first, drives the rigor for this text.
Beyond the influence of text complexity in the classroom, parents have to be aware of these factors when monitoring their child’s reading materials. If you have a child who has strong decoding skills, books should be monitored for age appropriate content. Take Harry Potter for example, many second-grade students have the ability to decode the words in the book, but Harry is an eleven-year-old dealing with situations more advanced than a younger reader. The flip side where an older student is a striving reader, but only has access books containing young characters and plot lines is also a concern. For this student, she/he loathes reading because the text makes them feel inadequate. Once again, the reader becomes the driver for determining the text.
So, when choosing a text for readers we need not to just look at a level number or traditional practices, but take into account the reader’s interests and rigor of the task students are to complete upon reading the text.