The Essentials of Literacy Instruction: Text Quality and Text Complexity

Published March 11, 2020


This is the first in a series of posts focusing on the essential elements of literacy instruction. We’re featuring some of the incredible authors and educators who have helped guide the creation of our beloved Wonders curriculum. Today, we’re discussing the essential concepts of text quality and complexity with Wonders author Dr. Tim Shanahan, and John Slagle, Senior National Literacy Specialist at McGraw-Hill.


John: First things first. While we all agree text quality and complexity are important, I find that agreeing on exactly what we mean when we use a term like “text complexity” is helpful. Dr. Shanahan, how would you define text quality and complexity?


Tim: Text quality and complexity are very different, though related, concepts. Text quality is a values judgment; it’s subjective. Those judgments might focus on the value of the content of the text. We might ask what the text is about – we might prefer that kids read about Abraham Lincoln rather than James Buchanan. We might make judgements about a text based on its literary quality or cultural importance. For example, we might value classic fairy tales over recent children’s books or value cultural touchstones – such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Text quality matters pedagogically in the same sense that eating quality calories is thought of in nutrition. You are what you eat, and your mind – in many ways – is what you read, view, or experience. Quality texts will include the content most valued by our society and will present that content in ways that are thought to have depth and texture. If you read the best books, you’ll know the most important stuff. If you interpret the finest literature, you’ll develop taste and habits of mind. But it is a values judgment; quality is a feature of text that is determined relative to one’s social or cultural values.

Text complexity is a relative term. Texts have many features which can be placed onto a continuum of complexity or sophistication or challenge. One aspect of “complexity” is vocabulary. Some authors choose simple words that most readers will know, while others might use rare words, neologisms, or employ common words in unusual ways. Other aspects of text complexity are sentence complexity, grammar, and text structures. Complexity, ultimately, is an issue of difficulty; how easy will it be to get this text to give up its meaning and how hard will I have to work at it? That means complexity and sophistication are features of a text in relation to a reader’s abilities.


John: Why are text quality and complexity important to literacy instruction in Grades K-5?

Dr. Timothy Shanahan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago


Tim: Both text quality and complexity are important for learning. We want students to have worthwhile experiences. We want them to know cultural touchstones, content that is valued in society, and the values of different groups of people. We strive to expose kids to the content that we think will best prepare them for thriving in society. Kids who read and study high quality texts are more likely to share common knowledge with their peers and value quality themselves.

Text complexity is important because we want students to develop a constellation of abilities that will enable them to handle complex texts independently. If children develop extensive vocabularies, they’ll be able to make sense of those words when confronted in the future. If students learn how to make sense of complicated, extensive, intricate grammar, they should be better prepared to navigate that kind of text going forward. The goal of exposing kids to complex text is to strengthen them and enable them to handle such texts themselves in the future.


John: What are the differences in how text quality and complexity support learning in Grades K-2 versus 3-5?


Tim: I don’t think they support learning differently, but I do think that how we evaluate a book as being high quality or complex would change a bit. In my description of text complexity, I focused heavily on vocabulary, grammar, structure, etc. However, those features are not as important when we talk about beginning readers (K-2). What makes a text particularly complex and challenging to a beginning reader is the complexity of the spelling patterns.

Young children usually aren’t prevented from making sense of a book because of the complex structure of the narrative; the words themselves are a challenge since they are learning to decode. By grades 3-5, spelling complexity recedes as a factor, and we shift our attention to helping kids understand other complexity features. We always want to confront students with features of complexity that will possibly block their understanding so we can teach them to overcome those challenges. Teaching students to deal with text complexity should be a constant in reading instruction, but the features and degree of complexity should change so that students learn to handle an ever-larger portion of the text universe.

Text quality, however, should be a constant. We should always be exposing kids to texts worth reading because of their content, literary merit, or both.


John: How are text quality and complexity visible in the classroom? What do they look like in a classroom using Wonders?


Tim: In terms of text quality, you would look for the topics covered, the likelihood that they’ll increase student knowledge of the world, the numbers of literary award winners that are included, and the joy and appreciation that the selections might generate among the students. In terms of text complexity, you can look at quantitative measures, like Lexiles, to see the steady increases in complexity over a school year or from year to year. You also need to pay attention to all the supports we provide to guide kids through negotiating complexity – for example the ACT (Access Complex Text) guidance, and the leveled readers which allow students to climb from one level to another.


Text quality and text complexity are key elements of literacy instruction, and one of three areas which align with the Gateways described by EdReports.org. Wonders ©2020 received positive marks in all three areas: Text Quality and Complexity, Building Knowledge, and Usability. To learn more, click here


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