Navigating Complex Text: What Students Need to Know and What to Teach

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Suzanne Carreker, Ph.D., CALT, QI, Principal Educational Content Lead​, Lexia Learning

Many students who graduate from high school face significant challenges in college related to their reading ability. These challenges stem from an inability to navigate complex text. Indeed, a seminal study (ACT, Inc., 2006) suggests that success with complex text predicts success in college. The inability to navigate complex texts is, in part, the result of a steady decrease in the complexity of textbooks in Grades 4 and up while, at the same time, the complexity of college textbooks has either remained the same or increased (Chall, 1977; Hiebert, 2014; NGA & CCSSO, 2010; Williamson, 2008). This means that a graduating high school senior who reads grade-level texts with 75% comprehension may be reading with less than 50% comprehension a few months later as he or she encounters college-level texts (Williamson, 2008). In an analysis of 800 texts, Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolf (1996) found that simplified texts have an unexpected and undesirable side-effect. These texts deny students the very things they need––knowledge, vocabulary, syntactic awareness, modes of thinking––to successfully comprehend more advanced texts in college (Adams, 2010).

College and career readiness standards call for students to read grade-appropriate complex text independently and proficiently. This mandate aims to reduce the disparity between what students are able to read and comprehend by the end of Grade 12 and what they need to read and comprehend to succeed in college. Understandably, complex text is foremost on the minds of middle- and high-school educators and administrators across the country. This paper will explore questions about text complexity: what is it; how is it evaluated; what do students need to know to navigate through it; and what instruction helps students navigate through it?


What is Text Complexity?

The purpose of having students read complex texts is to increase their knowledge of the world and vocabulary, which in turn will enable them to read increasingly more complex texts (Hiebert, 2013, 2014). Understanding what makes a text complex is helpful in choosing the best texts to meet instructional goals and student needs and improve students’ ability to navigate complex texts.

Text complexity is not simply a measure of the length of the words or sentences. Nor, is it simply a measure of the difficulty of the vocabulary. It is both and more. Text complexity is a tripartite evaluation (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). Two parts of a complexity evaluation measure the text itself. The quantitative part measures the number of syllables in words, number of words in sentences, and number of rare words. In other words, how the text is complex. The qualitative part takes into account: the meaning and purpose, the layout of the text, the overall language, the complexity of ideas, the knowledge required for understanding, and the structure of the text. In other words, why the text is complex. The first part of the complexity evaluation can be achieved through objective formulas or measures, such as Flesch-Kincaid, Dale-Chall, Degrees of Reading Powers®, ATOS, or Lexiles®. The second part is subjective, requiring educators to evaluate key features of a text. The third part of the evaluation matches the text to the reader and the task. Who is the reader? What is the task? The answers to these questions will determine what kind of scaffolding and how much scaffolding the reader will need to complete the task. Williamson, Fitzgerald, and Stenner (2013) provide this important caution:

“Stretching challenge levels for text during classroom instruction when teachers are providing scaffolding and other forms of support presents a very different challenge to many students than stretching challenge levels for text when they are reading independently” (p. 65).

The tripartite evaluation is a set of complementary measures of text features that are considered in concert with instructional goals and student needs––and always with the overarching goal of increasing students’ knowledge of the world and vocabulary.
How is Text Complexity Evaluated

For the purpose of illustrating the evaluation of text complexity, a short story, A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain, and a speech, We Shall Fight on the Beaches by Winston Churchill, will be used. Before beginning a text complexity evaluation, it is important to ask a few preliminary questions (Hiebert, 2014):

  • What value does this text have?

  • What knowledge, vocabulary, ideas, and insights can students gain from the text?

  • Is the text worthwhile?

Background information about the text, the author, and the author’s overall purpose are helpful in answering these questions. For example:

  • American writer and humorist Mark Twain, who strongly opposed experimental surgeries on animals (called vivisection by opponents), delivers a bittersweet portrayal of the steadfast trustworthiness of dogs and the capricious and sometimes callous behavior of humans in A Dog’s Tale.

  • On June 4, 1940, newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill prepares his colleagues in the House of Commons––and the entire British Empire––for a long and fierce fight while instilling courage and hope through his repetition of “We shall” in his memorable speech We Shall Fight on the Beaches.

  • Each writer furthers a cause––ending vivisection for Twain and steeling a nation for Churchill.

In answering these questions, it would seem both texts are worthy. Now, more information is needed about the quantitative and qualitative features of these texts to determine the reader and the task.

Quantitative Features

There are free online analyzers (e.g.,; that can be useful for evaluating a text’s readability, or quantitative features. The results will vary according to what the different formulas evaluate and how much of the text can be evaluated. The quantitative analyzers used to evaluate the texts of A Dog’s Tale and We Shall Fight on the Beaches are found in Table 1, along with the scores. The maximum text allowed for each analyzer was used.

The Flesch-Kincaid Formula evaluates the number of syllables in words and the number of words in sentences. The assumption is that longer words and sentences make a text more complex. Although the majority of words in both texts are one-syllable words, their readability scores at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Complexity Bands of 11th grade and beyond. The average number of words in the sentences in the two texts––31 words and 27.5 words––suggests that much of the complexity of the texts comes from sentence length. The Dale-Chall Formula measures the percentage of words not found on a list of 3,000 words that are familiar to most fourth-grade readers. The complexity levels based on the Dale-Chall Formula are reported at lower grade-level ranges for both texts. Note, though, that the percentage of unfamiliar words is much higher in We Shall Fight on the Beaches. There will be more words in this text that readers may not instantly or easily recognize for reading. The Degrees of Reading Powers® predict that on-grade-level readers in seventh or eighth grade should be able to read and understand A Dog’s Tale with at least 80% comprehension at the end of the year. On-grade-level readers in ninth or tenth grade should be able to read and understand We Shall Fight on the Beaches with 90% comprehension at the end of the year. ATOS measures words per sentence and average grade level of words. The ATOS score for A Dog’s Tale matches most of the other measures. The ATOS score of 9.3 for We Shall Fight on the Beaches just misses the range for CCSS 9-10, which is 9.67 – 12.01.


Qualitative Features

Evaluating the qualitative features is more subjective than the evaluating the quantitative features. This evaluation requires an initial reading of the text and then careful consideration of the qualitative features such as those presented in Table 2 below. The structure and layout of the text, the overall language, the knowledge demands, and the level of purpose(s) or meaning(s) make a text less or more complex (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). Table 2 also presents questions that can guide consideration of the qualitative features. The more questions that are answered with “no,” the greater the complexity.


Figure 1 provides an excerpt from Mark Twain’s A Dog’s Tale and Figure 2 provides an excerpt from Winston Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches. These excerpts will be used to explore some of the qualitative features of the two texts that make the texts complex. These features can inform the instruction that will promote success in understanding the texts.

A Dog's Tale

A Dog’s Tale originally appeared in the December 1903 issue of Harper’s Magazine and was later reprinted in a pamphlet for The Anti-Vivisection Society. The quantitative evaluation of A Dog’s Tale suggests that the text is appropriate for seventh- or eighth-grade readers. What about from a qualitative perspective? In evaluating the qualitative features of A Dog’s Tale, the majority of questions in Table 2 would be answered “no,” meaning this is a complex text. Below are a few examples of features that make this text complex. What does the reader need to know to deeply understand this text?

  • Syntax

This excerpt is found at the beginning of Chapter 1 in the three-chapter short story. The reader quickly sees that the sentence structure of this text is not mostly simple. The fifth sentence, which begins on the fifth line of the excerpt, has 91 words and four sentences joined by colons or semicolons.

  • Vocabulary and Knowledge

Although the language is conversational, the reader may find the text difficult to understand because of long sentences and unfamiliar words. The 10 underlined words in Figure 1 are examples of words in the text that are not found in a core of 4,000 vocabulary words that account for about 90% of the words in most texts (Hiebert, 2012, 2013). That means, some seventh- and eighth-grade readers may not have had much experience with them and, in this text, the meanings of these words are not easily inferred. The reader with knowledge about breeds of dogs will better understand some of the underlined words. Will the reader understand how words such as dogmatic and cultivated add to the author’s tone, and how words such as envious, suspicious, and ashamed contribute to the meaning of the story?

  • Literary or Rhetorical Devices

The opening sentence introduces the reader to the first-person narrator, who is a dog. Will the reader understand how this illustration of anthropomorphism helps to create the tone and mood in Chapter 1? Will the reader perceive how the tone and mood change in succeeding chapters and understand the effects of the changes? “It seemed like a dictionary speaking” is one of several figures of speech the narrator uses to describe her overly loquacious mother or her mother’s erroneous but endearing use of language. Ultimately, will the reader understand the heartbreaking irony in the final chapter?


We Shall Fight on the Beaches

Winston Churchill delivered his speech We Shall Fight on the Beaches to the British House of Common not long after the Nazis invaded France. England was in imminent danger of being invaded. The quantitative measures are fairly consistent in determining that this text is appropriate for ninth- or tenth-grade readers. In evaluating the qualitative features of this text, the majority of questions in Table 2 would be answered “no,” meaning this is a complex text. What does the reader need to know and be able to do to deeply understand this text?

  • Syntax

The excerpt in Figure 2 below contains the closing of Churchill’s speech. The language is not straightforward or familiar. The sentences are long. The final sentence contain 98 words, which some readers may find difficult to follow and understand without repeated readings.

  • Vocabulary and Knowledge

The underlined words in the excerpt are examples of words that are not core vocabulary words (Hiebert, 2013). Some readers, especially struggling readers, may have had limited experience with these words and, in this text, the meanings of these words are not easily inferred. Resolved is a core vocabulary word although resolve, used in this text as a noun, is not. The words rule and flag have been asterisked in the excerpt because the meanings of these words in this text are not the most commonly used meanings. Knowledge of morphology, such as prefix sub-, may aid the reader in determining the meanings of words (e.g., subjugate, surrender). With knowledge of World War II and the dire events leading up to this speech, the reader most likely will be familiar with words, such as Gestapo and Nazi , and may be better able to predict the tenor of words, such as odious, menace, and tyranny.


  • Literary or Rhetorical Devices

Throughout the text, the author uses metonymy, the substitution of the name of a thing with attributes of that thing. Will the reader understand the meanings and the effects of metonymic phrases, such as our island home, native soil, strength in the air, the New World, and the old? Lastly, knowing rhetorical elements of persuasive speech (e.g., repetition, inclusive pronouns) will support the reader’s understanding of the author’s purpose and how the author’s hopes to achieve that purpose.

The Reader, Task, and Scaffolding Considerations

The third part of the text complexity evaluation deals with the considerations about the reader, the task, and the scaffolding as presented below in Table 3 (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). What does the reader bring to the task in terms of reading skills, cognitive capabilities, and reader traits? What is the purpose of reading the text, and what task will the reader be asked to complete? The answers to these questions will determine the kinds and levels of scaffolding the reader might need to deeply read and understand the text (Reynolds & Goodwin, 2016; Shanahan, 2013).

What Do Students Need to Know to Navigate Complex Text?

Beyond accurate and fluent reading, knowledge of the world supports deep comprehension of complex texts (Hirsch, 2003). Knowledge is attained through experiences and by reading widely. Two other important underpinnings for navigating complex text are vocabulary and syntax (Hiebert, 2014).

To comprehend a text well, the reader must know the meanings of 95% of the words in the text (Carver, 1994). Both breadth and depth of vocabulary are important (Anderson & Freebody, 1981). Breadth is the number of words a person knows, and depth is knowledge about words beyond a common definition (e.g., multiple meanings, synonymy, figurative language, connotation, precision, grammatical functions). Breadth of vocabulary is increased through direct instruction of words and their meanings, word-learning strategies, and wide reading. Depth of vocabulary is increased through direct instruction and ample experiences in texts.

Text readability analyzers such as those demonstrated earlier in this paper use sentence length as part of the determination of a text’s complexity. Long sentences are often complex sentences that are arranged with multiple phrases or clauses. Not only does syntax predict the complexity of a text, recent research suggests it can predict a reader’s text comprehension (Poulsen & Gravgaard, 2016). Knowing types of sentences, conjunctions, and punctuation such as commas, colons, and semicolons can help the reader understand how a sentence is long. Knowing the functions of words, phrases, and clauses can help the reader understand why a sentence is long and understand the overall syntax in a complex text.

What Instruction Helps Students Navigate Complex Text?

Explicit and systematic instruction of grammar and syntax as well as text elements and structures provides students with skills that aid deep reading of complex texts. The qualitative evaluation will inform the most appropriate instruction for a specific text--syntax, anthropomorphism, irony, metonymy, persuasive techniques.

Instruction focused on increasing vocabulary is arguably one of the most impactful across texts (Carver, 1994; Hiebert, 2012). An advantage of word-learning strategies such as morphology, appositives, and context clues is they help “teach” the massive number of words a reader needs to understand complex texts that cannot be learned through direct instruction alone (Nagy & Anderson, 1994). The word-learning strategy that has the highest yield is morphology, which is the study of Latin- and Greek-based prefixes, roots, suffixes, and combining forms. Teaching relatively few word parts unlocks the meanings of hundreds of thousands of words and greatly increases the breadth of a reader’s vocabulary (Henry, in press).

For example, the words subjugated and surrender in the Figure 2 text share the prefix sub- meaning under. To subjugate is to bring under control. To surrender is to cause to be under another’s authority. The prefix sub- in the word surrender changes its spelling to match the initial letter of the root render. This is done for euphony, to make the word sound better and easier to pronounce. This prefix and its alternate spellings are found in hundreds and hundreds of words. The Figure 1 and 2 texts contain words with suffix -ous meaning full of (e.g., envious, suspicious, famous). There are hundreds and hundreds of words with this word part. Suffix -ous is an adjective-forming suffix that is added to the end of either a noun or a verb. The suffix changes the function of the root word, which increases the reader’s knowledge about the depth of words.


Navigating complex text is critical for success in college, career, and adult life. The selection of complex texts involves a tripartite evaluation of text features that are considered in concert with instructional goals and student needs. Understanding how a worthy text is complex identifies it as a potential text. Understanding why the text is complex clarifies what students need to know and be able to do to deeply understand the text, which informs appropriate instruction. Understanding for whom a particular task is intended guides the scaffolding that will support success in navigating the text. In short, finding the right complex text that is delivered with the right instruction and scaffolding will improve students' ability to analyze and comprehend increasingly complex text, leading to greater proficiency and academic success, as well as the economic opportunities that follow.

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