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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  • TriciaEbner


    This is a wonderful example of the challenging part of text complexity. Until we match the reader to the text, it doesn’t matter how simple or complicated the text is. There has to be a hook and a connection there.

    Thanks for sharing such a great illustration! And kudos to Dakota for sticking with it. His persistence in working on his reading skills, even when reading itself hadn’t hooked him yet, says volumes about the kind of learner he is!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      “Closely Reading” Our Readers 🙂


      Thanks for the comment! I love your statement, “Until we match the reader to the text, it doesn’t matter how simple or complicated the text is.”  I know you work with GT students and advanced readers who are likely quite skilled at making meaning, and I’m glad you feel this text complexity ‘truth’ holds true for all readers :).

      Dorothy Barnhouse, an ELA student-centered guru I admire and respect highly, talks about starting our instruction with the student (“closely reading readers”) instead of with the text. You can find her post here

      P.S. Dakota is an amazing student and a true example of a growth mindset learner! Thanks for recognizing his persistence and grit!

      • Stevi Quate

        Your great blog

        Jessica, loved what you had to say and admired your commitment to Dakota (and your other kiddos). You are so right: the human being trumps everything on that triangle of text complexity. This is what was missing in my grandkids’ education. In all truthfulness (and with great sadness), I never heard them talk once about a teacher who thought about them as s/he selected the books the entire class would read. I also don’t recall them having choice in what they read. Instead, they were assigned books such as The Good Earth and a Willa Cather novel (can’t recall which one) to read over the summer — all assigned under the guise of a rigorous education. How I wish they had had you as a teacher!

        Isn’t Dorothy’s new book spectacular?


        • JessicaCuthbertson

          Matching/Selecting With Intention vs. Assigning


          I couldn’t agree more — I was that rebel reader who would read my OWN book inside my required book in high school and middle school :). I think matching kids to texts is one of the many ways we can show we care about our students as people, readers, and scholars. And letting students select their own reading (balancing that with “required” reading) is key to engagement and fostering lifelong readers.

          YES, Dorothy’s book is fantastic — I started it and can’t wait to finish it along with my growing professional stack on my nightstand table!  Summer professional reading rocks!

  • Megan the red from Massachusetts

    Yes, yes, yes!

    So well said, stated, and tugs at my heart. Lovely piece on an important topic!

    • JessicaCuthbertson


      Thanks for reading, sharing and supporting my blogging journey, Megan! 🙂

      I remember (fondly) our CCSS (including text complexity) conversations from the spring 2013 webinar series and I feel lucky to think through the standards and what’s most supportive for student learning with my virtual colleagues! 

  • Tamara Sakuda


    I loved your post!! As a high school resource teacher, I am constantly trying to find “the book” for students who struggle to read! Your story mirrors several of my own. Once I gave up the idea of group novels, book clubs, etc, and moved to free choice reading, I was able to help my students find “the book” that worked for them! I know there is a balance between comprehension skills and reading for pleasure — but if students never learn to love reading, then what happens when they leave the confines of the classroom! Thanks for sharing!!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Hooray for K-12 Choice (& Balance!)

      It warms my heart to know there are teachers out there like you at all levels (across the K-12 continuum) that believe in independent/self-selected/choice reading for students! I think this is one of the best ways to differentiate and support engagement — letting students choose and fall in love with reading through selecting something meaningful…I think shared experiences (like whole novels, book clubs, etc.) can be very impactful as well when balanced with a good amount of choice and self-selected texts. I’m psyched to hear this has been impactful for your high schoolers! (And I’d like to encourage you to share those stories with an audience if you haven’t already! 🙂 

      And…if you haven’t checked out (CTQ teacher & blogger 🙂 Ariel Sacks book Whole Novels for the Whole Class I highly recommend it — it’s grounded in reader/student-centered approaches (so a great complement to self-selected reading) for whole class texts — it’s terrific!

  • Jack Kronser

    Human Resources

    Your post was inspiring. thank you for sharing it.


    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thank you!

      Thank you, Jack, for reading and commenting! It’s inspiring to me to see district staff members from all departments come together to support our P-12 readers! 

  • ArielSacks

    Oh, I so agree!

    Jessica, you really make this point well here. The hyperfocus lately on text complexity does seem to leave th reader out of most conversations. How strange! Thanks for making it real for readers in this post.


    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Real Readers, Real Reading 🙂

      Thank you, Ariel, for your kind words and for your relentless quest to support readers across approaches (from whole novels to poetry to self-selected texts :). Keep inspiring all of us fellow #ELA teachers through sharing stories of the readers in your classroom!

  • Jennifer Henderson


    So powerful Jessica! It’s amazing to me how often we forget what’s important and who should be at the center of our planning and curriculum…our students! 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Student-Centered Planning

      Thanks for reading and for your ongoing support, Jenn. Why do you think students sometimes get lost in larger discussions about instruction? Do you have great examples of PLC’s keeping students at the center of their planning, curriculum, and instruction? How might we elevate these stories?

      (P.S. I know this is a personal strength of yours — if you want to share any stories of your own you’re welcome to guest post here! Let me know! 🙂