The Common Core State Standards for Reading call upon students in grades K-12 to read and comprehend complex literary and information texts independently and proficiently. But before students can learn how to tackle complex texts, teachers must be able to identify texts that meet this challenge. In Big Skills for the Common Core: Literary Strategies for the 6-12 Classroom Amy Benjamin and Michael Hugelmeyer outline six traits that can be used to identify complex texts and the difference between informational texts and literary nonfiction.
What Defines Text Complexity?
There are no precise measures of text complexity. It used to be measured by two factors: sentence length and word length. Clearly, that is an inaccurate, if broadly useful, way to determine how much brainpower it takes to comprehend something that we read. But the authors of the Common Core have done an admirable job of delineating what kinds of factors go into determining text complexity. In addition to those two quantitative measures (sentence length and word length), we now have a better idea of some qualitative features that go into the mix, such as subtleties, author’s assumptions about the reader, eye appeal, vocabulary, level of abstraction, and era in which the text was written.
- Subtleties. Are there layers of meaning? Is it possible to derive new meaning from reading the text more than once? Is there symbolism? Figurative language? Wordplay?
- Author’s assumptions about the reader. How much background knowledge does the author assume that the reader has?
- Eye appeal. Does the physical layout of the text (also called text features) make it easier or more challenging for the reader? Are there pictures? Is there symbolic and numerical information, such as graphs, tables, and charts? If so, sometimes this kind of information is translated clearly into words anyway, so the reader actually has a choice of how to process the information. Other times, the reader is expected to interpret the graphic information, and will not be able to comprehend the information without examining it carefully.
- Vocabulary. How rare are the words? In the case of rare words, how necessary is it to understand them in order to get a gist of the text? Does the author provide contextual clues to the meaning of unfamiliar words? Are these words that can be broken down into components (prefix, root, suffix) that the reader knows? Are unfamiliar words repeated? (This can be either a help or a hindrance, depending on whether the reader can figure out the word in multiple contexts, or whether she has stopped to find its meaning.) Remember that a reader who stops, even briefly, to consult an outside source for a word’s meaning has to break the flow of comprehension.
- Level of abstraction. The less we can picture and touch something, the more difficult it is to understand it, let alone the subtleties and details of it. Processes, concepts, theories, and systems of organization are examples of abstractions. Certain word endings create abstract concepts. When you see a lot of words ending in -tion, -ity, -ment, -ism, -ness, -acy, you know you are in Abstraction Land. Interestingly, the world of fiction (narrative and literary text) is populated by people, things, and specific actions. These people, things, and actions are usually vividly described with adjectives and adverbs. Hence, stories tend to be concrete (and easy to visualize) rather than abstract (not so easy to visualize). This is one of the reasons students with limited experience in a wide variety of text often find it difficult to comprehend science text even though they have always been good at reading narrative text.
- Era in which the text was written. Was it written before the twentieth century? If so, the style is likely to have archaic words, long sentences, long paragraphs, and unfamiliar references to nouns (things no longer in use). Even text written before the middle of the twentieth century can be challenging. Language changes surprisingly fast, and today’s student may be unfamiliar with the sentence styles and nouns of not too long ago.
The Common Core emphasizes that students should be able to comprehend America’s founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and key speeches that led to the American Revolution. The language of such documents includes all kinds of embedded clauses, long sentences, pronouns that are not near their referents, and other features of complex—more importantly, unfamiliar—writing style.
TIP: Understanding Informational Texts vs. Literary Nonfiction
There are two kinds of nonfiction. Text whose purpose is to lay out information purely for its own sake—textbooks, reports, straight news articles, encyclopedic information—we will designate as strictly informational text. Strictly informational text is highly organized, often marked by headings and subheadings, and does not digress. Strictly informational text falls easily into an outline form, which is why outlining is an excellent way of processing, reviewing, and remembering it.
Then we have literary nonfiction—memoirs, lyric poetry, editorials and essays, biographies that are meant to be read as stories (rather than encyclopedia entries), nature writing, and letters. These are crafted with rhetorical flourishes and offer more than mere information. They are meant to be savored for the beauty and power of the language that composes the information, not just for the information.
The Common Core reading standards require that students gather experience in both types of nonfiction. This means that English teachers must include some strictly informational text to supplement the literary pieces, and that content-area teachers must supplement the textbook-type information with a few literary pieces.