The Truth About Text Complexity

It took me just over two years of painstaking trial and error, but I finally found a book for Dakota. The book that he’ll remember as a game changer. The one that shifted him from compliant to enthusiastic page-turner.

Some adolescents enter our classrooms voracious readers. But many other students still haven’t found THE book. In edu-speak we sometimes call these students “reluctant” or “struggling” readers. In actuality, they are simply readers who haven’t yet experienced the joy of being lost in a world of words.

I first met Dakota in a summer school session sandwiched between his fifth and sixth grade years. He was polite, funny, hard working, and disillusioned with reading. He did not struggle with fluency and he could comprehend grade level text. But he didn’t enjoy reading.

And so the matchmaking began. Since dystopian YA was all the rage I started there. Dakota read a few titles but they didn’t hold his interest. I tried to get him hooked on a crime thriller series. Meh. Historical fiction? Not his thing. Nonfiction? No way.

After his sixth grade year I decided it might be the reading experience and not the text itself that needed to change. So in seventh grade I placed him in an all-boys book club with several of his friends. Dakota finished all three books with the club, but none of them “stuck.”

The search continued.

In the midst of all of this reading, Dakota’s comprehension and reading strategy usage flourished. He annotated texts with a vengeance. He persevered through short and long complex works and used text evidence to support his thinking in written responses. He woke up early every morning to attend a before-school reading intervention class. And yet, no matter how much he read, what he read, or whom he read with, he still did not enjoy reading.

Until now.

In a June summer school session sandwiched between seventh and eighth grade, just over two years from the day we first met, it happened. The text? Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.

“This is good…” he said a few chapters in, his voice incredulous.

The next day he asked if he could read ahead and take the book home.

And he couldn’t stop talking about it.

Because he genuinely enjoyed this book, I’m confident he’ll like other survival stories and tales of triumph and justice. I can’t wait to introduce him to everything from Gary Paulsen to Jack London this coming school year.

And in the meantime, he’s reading the sequel and other books by Mikaelsen this summer.

Since the widespread adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, text complexity has received a lot of attention. In visual models, three components are generally represented equally: quantitative dimensions, qualitative dimensions, and reader and task considerations.  

The problem with this three-part model is that these considerations are not always equal. In practice, they do not make a nice, neat triangle.

The truth about text complexity? The reader trumps all.

Dakota didn’t fall in love with Touching Spirit Bear because it has a Lexile level of 670. In fact, had I been a stickler for quantitative measures, I would have deemed the book too “easy.” Nor did he enjoy this text because the narrative is chock full of figurative language and uses flashbacks to toggle between the protagonist’s current situation and his past actions (qualitative dimensions).

Dakota loved this book, simply, because he found the main character and plot compelling. He loved it because for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to actively work at visualizing. The setting, a remote island off the coast of Alaska, sprang from the pages and into his mind. It was the right time for this reader to experience that text.

The most complex thing about text complexity (and perhaps teaching in general) is figuring out what our students need and how we can match their needs to a text that will create a joyful and meaningful reading experience. To do this well, we have to really know our readers. There’s not a formula or text complexity rubric that can do that work for us.

Because human beings are the most complex texts of all.

Do you remember the moment when you found your book? The one you couldn’t put down? The one you read late into the night or carried around with you, stealing small moments in between daily obligations? Do you remember what it was about that book that changed you as a human being?

I seriously doubt it was a single quantitative or qualitative measure.

Do you remember the book that made you fall in love with reading?

I was there the day Dakota did.

And it was worth the wait.

Author’s Note: With gratitude to Dakota and his family, for letting me share his name, his picture, and most importantly, his story with others. 

 

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