What Makes a Text Complex?

So the easy answer is short sentences and easy vocabulary makes sentences and texts easier to understand. Right? Well, not exactly. Some leveled texts that English language learners and struggling readers get, end up having really choppy sentences that communicate nowhere near the quality or quantity of material than their high achieving and mono-lingual peers receive. In some cases, the depth of content learning these students receive is comparable to the instruction and exposure received by students’ 3-4 grades below their own. So are simplified texts a problem for comprehension and content mastery, in general? Not necessarily. It goes back to how text complexity and readability is calculated by most publishing companies. When the majority of companies simplify a text, they do so by limiting the number of words and controlling the difficulty of vocabulary.   However, by trying to adhere to these constraints, many of these texts end up becoming more difficult to comprehend. This is because the consistency in voice, relationship between sentences, exposure to the grammatical structures of the discipline, relevance, and usefulness of the information are compromised to meet requirements.   English language learners and struggling readers are ultimately left to infer or guess much of the background information, causal relationships, and relevance of the information presented, because none of that information is provided. Additionally, students with language limitations make these inferences with texts that might not be as engaging as those of their monolingual and avid reading peers. This leaves our students at a greater disadvantage to have the ability or motivation to engage in such guess work. So if these books cannot serve as the model of academic language, what can, and how should this resource be used? The answer is not necessarily changing one resource for another. Rather, it is understanding that there is more to text complexity for struggling readers and English language learners than the number of words in a sentence and how hard the vocabulary is.   Some of the other ways that texts are complex is the syntax, context, grammatical structures used, verb tense, use of pronouns, and semantics. Together these components work together to help students create or struggle with meaning. Students actually need an opportunity to engage, at times, with grade level texts that contain all of these complex language structures. This interaction with grade level texts is a powerful opportunity to gain access to rich, vivid accounts of the content they are expected to learn.   Grade level texts also give learners a chance to learn grade appropriate academic vocabulary, grammatical structures, phraseology, and linguistic devices that are a natural part of the discipline in that grade. However, English language learners and struggling readers cannot simply be handed a grade level text to see how they do. It must come with teacher support. Teachers can and must take the opportunity to show students how language is used and ways they can incorporate those structures into their own language use in order to support students’ language development. More importantly than using grade level texts, however, is to know that there is no one text that is going to serve the full range of needs that your ELLs and struggling readers have. The key is to balance. There are times that a modified text might be the perfect resource to frontload some key ideas for a small group of students before the entire group begins a unit of learning. There are other times that you want to do a close reading of a Social Studies textbook in order to provide students with the opportunity to analyze a powerful section of the text that is critical for the unit of study. Other times, it might be something different such as: Independent reading Content reading Buddy reading Interactive read aloud Shared reading Readers theater in-class assignments homework All of these structures for reading with students allow for varying level of readability and language complexity. As part of the planning process, teachers can think about what is appropriate for their students based on the learning outcome for the lesson and language proficiency levels in order to help them make wise decisions about the texts they chose at any given time. Just remember to use more than sentence and word length as the determining factor for choosing the text. Other considerations can be the following: syntax, context, grammatical structures used, verb tense, use of pronouns, semantics