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Selecting Complex Text Pt. 2

by UnboundEd

By Sierah Tyson, UnboundEd ELA Specialist, and former ELA Teacher

In part one of this series on complex text, we discussed the shift in ELA and how it requires that students practice with complex text and its academic language. Along my journey, I heard questions like, “Can my students handle complex texts?,” “Can I select this book I read when I was a student?,” and “What is a Lexile, and is it enough to determine the complexity?” Oftentimes these questions are followed up by, “So what texts would you recommend?” Like everything else, the answer to that question takes practice, however, here are just a few recommended texts as well as a quick look at the quantitative and qualitative features that make the text complex.

What texts would you recommend?

  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan has a 740 Lexile measure which places it in the 3rd–4th grade band, but the qualitative features place this text in 5th–6th grade. The text has subtle themes that span across the entire text making it moderately more complex for students. For the text structure, the plot is sequential but occurs in two different countries with large time shifts, which makes it very complex. Metaphors are repeated throughout the story and are used to convey the theme, making the language very complex. The setting in Mexico and rural California during the 1930’s as well as the historical references and use of Spanish words make the knowledge demands more complex.


  • Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck has a 630 Lexile which places it in the 2nd–3rd grade band but the qualitative features bring the complexity to 6th–8th grade. This is a great example of how the Lexile alone is not enough to determine complexity. The text has multiple levels of meaning focusing on the American Dream, brotherhood, isolation, and loss. The structure is fairly simple but the third person omniscient narrator shifts the perspective, which complicates the organization. The repeated use of figurative language as well as the dialect make the clarity of language more difficult. The text has a variety of themes that require cultural knowledge to access.


  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has a 870 Lexile measure which places it in the 4th–6th grade band, but this text can be read in 9th–10th grade. This recommendation is surprising because the grade-level suggestion makes a major jump when the qualitative features are considered. The text has multiple meanings and discusses issues of race and prejudice. The use of flashbacks and narrations from the protagonist as a child complicates the text’s structure. The use of southern dialects, slang, and colloquialisms add complexity within language. And the knowledge demands require an understanding of the culture, society, and civil rights during this time period. 


  • “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. has a 1220 Lexile measure which places it in the 7th–10th grade band. This text is normally read in 9th–10th grade so the Lexile did place it in the correct grade band. Some features that add complexity include the language and knowledge demands. The text has very complex language because of the unfamiliar vocabulary and variety of sentence structure. The knowledge demands are also very complex because there is a need for a vast knowledge of the civil rights movement, justice, civil disobedience, and the south during the 1960’s to access the meaning of the text.


Check out the Text Complexity Qualitative Features Rubric for both Informational Text and Literature for more details! The Quantitative Tools to Measure Text Complexity can be found in the same place. In addition to using the quantitative and qualitative features, we have to also consider the reader-task variables. All three factors will give us a more accurate depiction of the text’s complexity and help us make informed decisions when selecting a text for instruction.

What texts are your students reading this year? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter and follow me, @EducationNomad, for the latest updates along my journey.