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Books in Translation

Reading Across the Content Areas
December 20, 2012 | Volume 8 | Issue 6
Table of Contents 

Common Core Quick-Start

Strategies for Complex Texts Across Content Areas

Kirsten Miller

Think for a moment about something—anything—that you've read today. Was it an article in an education journal? A nutrition label on a product at the grocery store? The instructions for assembling your new entertainment center?

In our day-to-day lives, we all encounter a steady stream of expository text. But are we preparing our students to read and interpret complex texts in ways that will foster college and career success? Research, as cited in Appendix A (PDF) to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, suggests that the answer is a fairly emphatic "no" (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010). To remedy this perceived gap, the standards place a heavy emphasis on students "comprehend[ing] texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school" (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010, p. 2).

But how do teachers determine whether texts are appropriately complex for their students, and how do they teach them once they do?

What Is Text Complexity?

Text complexity is defined in three parts: quantitative dimensions of text complexity, which are objective and are evaluated by measures such as Flesch Kincaid® or the Lexile framework®; qualitative measures of text complexity, which are more subjective and include things like levels of meaning and language clarity; and reader and task considerations, which include variables such as student motivation and the complexity of the assignment (Ryan & Frazee, 2012).

If this sounds, well, complex, that's because it is. Although there's no magic formula for determining text complexity, there are strategies that can help teachers determine the complexity of the texts they're currently teaching and others that provide guidance for teaching complex texts.

Determining Text Complexity

Although determining text complexity may not be easy—and teachers may find that the texts they're currently using have lower complexity levels than are expected under the Common Core standards— there are a number of resources available to teachers.

Engage NY, for example, offers links to a number of resources related to text complexity, including two popular qualitative rubrics for determining text complexity for informational and literary texts, respectively. The rubrics are organized by high, middle high, middle low, and low text complexity and focus on purpose and meaning, structure, language, and knowledge demands. Using rubrics to determine text complexity provides a key opportunity for collaboration; a team of teachers from across subject areas, for example, might spend time reviewing content-specific texts to determine their complexity levels. These conversations may also surface other potential opportunities for collaboration across content areas.

Strategies for Teaching Complex Texts to Students in the Content Areas

Kosanovich, Reed, and Miller (2010) offer five research-based recommendations that content-area teachers can use to help students understand complex texts:

  • Provide explicit instruction and supportive practice in effective comprehension strategies throughout the school day. Strategies to help students complex subject-area text include making students aware of their own cognitive processes and the purposes of the comprehension strategies; teachers should also provide multiple opportunities for students to use the strategies and to receive feedback on their use.
  • Increase the amount and quality of open, sustained discussion of reading content. Small-group or teacher-led discussions have the potential to increase student engagement, improve student understanding and reading comprehension, and activate students' shared and individual background knowledge.
  • Set and maintain high standards for text, conversations, questions, and vocabulary. Kosanovich et al. (2010) note that teachers have to be on board to create and maintain high standards around expectations and to use instructional methods that support student growth. As Common Core standards implementation has ramped up, more than a few teachers have expressed reluctance to give up texts that are currently in their curricula or to add texts that they don't currently teach. But teachers will need to go all-in on text complexity if schools are to implement the Common Core standards to their full advantage, and for some, that may mean letting go of cherished books and lesson plans.
  • Increase students' motivation and engagement with reading. To increase students' motivation, Kosanovich et al. (2010) recommend creating opportunities for students to interact, providing a variety of texts to students that pique their interest, and focusing students on important and interesting learning goals. The authors also recommend providing students with more choices of text and assignments to build their autonomy, which may provide opportunities to involve students more deeply in determining the complexity of the texts that they're reading.
  • Teach essential content knowledge so that all students master critical concepts. We know that background knowledge is important for comprehension across subject areas; as Kosanovich et al. (2010) note, "students' prior knowledge highly influences their ability to comprehend, think about, and learn new information from a newly presented text" (p. 12). By intentionally designing instruction to enhance students' understanding, teachers can help students more readily comprehend complex texts.

The changes in instruction and curriculum that come hand-in-hand with the Common Core ELA standards are not inconsequential, and focusing on text complexity will likely require additional opportunities for teacher professional development. But we're all in this together, and addressing text complexity using a collaborative, cross-content approach will provide extended opportunities to learn with—and from—each other.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects: Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards; Glossary of Key Terms. Washington, DC: CCSSO & National Governors Association. Retrieved from

Ryan, S., & Frazee, D. (2012). Common core standards for high school English language arts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kosanovich, M. L., Reed, D. K., & Miller, D. H. (2010). Bringing literacy strategies into content instruction: Professional learning for secondary-level teachers. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Kirsten Miller is lead communications consultant at McREL.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 6. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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