Tools and Resources

Text Complexity is…well…complex!

Shifting perspectives about high-interest, low-level texts.

I began my educational journey as a second-grade teacher, but it wasn’t until my MSE scholarship program, focusing on teaching children with reading difficulties, that I learned how to teach and apply the science of reading to my instructional practices. At times it felt as if I were teaching literacy against the current because the majority of schools in which I taught at that time focused on the whole language or the classroom workshop model. However, with time, there has been a shift to demand more of our educators and to follow the science about what works best when teaching children to read.

Three years after my MSE program, I used my skills as an early elementary school teacher, reading specialist, and literacy coach into a new role in alternative education with an amazing group of teachers and school leaders.

For context, our students were 17–23 years old and were seeking to obtain their high school equivalency diploma. Almost 60% of our students were reading below a 5th-grade level; 55% were English language learners (majority newcomers to the country); students with disabilities didn’t always have their IEPs honored because of teacher capacity; and a large majority of teachers and school leaders in the program were high school certified or content specialists. The need for a deep understanding of foundational skills was evident and also how to support adult learners with building their literacy skills and knowledge. Over time, there were reading specialists hired in our program to work with building students’ literacy skills in intensive, small groups. This helped a great deal. This freed space to support teachers in building literacy to increase fluency and comprehension. 

When the state shifted to the Common Core Standards, we understood that complex text was being used as a driver for the standards. The instructional shifts for ELA mapped out the “how” to the CCSS’ “what”; it was just a matter of getting the right texts into the hands of students. This was a difficult task, however. For one, our students stayed with us in our program for an average of 58 days and often had inconsistent attendance. Reading a novel or a text over an extended period of time would be difficult. Students’ reading levels also made this task challenging. Without having the proper certification and professional development, teachers rarely had the knowledge about implementing scaffolds to help students access the text. Lastly, there were mindset shifts that needed to occur. Teachers and school leaders needed to believe that students CAN achieve at high levels and provide the discipline to hold students accountable with academic tasks.

My coaching team and I made a decision to support teachers with layering texts. ELA, social studies, and science teachers needed support as to which text to give to students, so we created booklists and ordered a mass of books at varying levels to provide teachers with texts. High-interest, low-level (or “Hi/Lo”) texts are books written at lower grade levels that contain content explicitly for older readers. These texts tend to be culturally relevant, with engaging and relatable topics. Texts ranging from Monster by Walter Dean Myers to All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood were placed in the hands of students across our program. Complexity, in terms of word frequency and sentence length, or essentially what we think of as Lexile levels, can increase with time and instruction. If we begin with texts that are lower in Lexile but of high interest, we will begin to engage reluctant readers and draw on students’ funds of knowledge. 

It worked! Teachers were not resistant to engaging students with Hi/Lo texts, and students were eager to read. However, this is NOT where your students’ text journey should end. Hi/Lo texts are great appetizers to the main course of complex, grade-level texts. If we truly want to prepare students for college and career readiness, we must ensure that we not only provide the materials that can facilitate this type of thinking and learning but also ensure that we are equipping students with the appropriate support to allow access to complex texts.

Supports look like using text sets to build knowledge of a topic. Supports also look like close reads where students are evaluating and investigating the text multiple times for multiple purposes. Supports sound like whisper, choral, and partner reads. Supports sound like the constant buzz of a busy classroom, where student discourse and debates are happening. Supports sound like questions being asked that allow students to dig deeper into content and concepts. Finally supports should feel like safety, where students feel they can take risks and be incorrect without judgment.

My call to action: provide Hi/Lo texts to help build and facilitate knowledge that can help students access complex, grade-level text. Increase their reader confidence, draw on their funds of knowledge, and ensure they see themselves—and others—and can navigate between those worlds effortlessly. Once you have built their confidence, stamina, and reader identity, support students in navigating complex, grade-appropriate texts. If we only provide texts that are below grade level, no matter how engaging and complex the topic, students will never have the opportunity to perform at high levels and therefore will not be fully prepared to enter the workforce, college, or life outside of the four walls of our classrooms.

One thought on “Text Complexity is…well…complex!

  1. Hold all students accountable and all teachers must believe students CAN achieve at high levels. This will show tremendous student success.

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About the Author: Shanita Rapatalo is currently a national independent education/literacy consultant and co-owner of The Rapatalo Group, LLC. She has worked in the education non-profit sector as well as district and charter schools in New York City and Washington, DC. Her passion is developing strong teacher practitioners, strengthening school leader instructional capacity, and assessing promising practices that best support students in the most equitable way. She has worked with organizations such as the New York City Department of Education, UnboundEd, TNTP, Student Achievement Partners, Rising Academies, and DCPSB, and began teaching 19 years ago as a Teach For America corps member. She has experience teaching students from kindergarten through adult education and held roles such as a Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, Literacy Coach, Instructional Borough (Manhattan) Coach, and ELA Content Lead. She received her BS in Biology from Trinity College, and MSE in Curriculum and Instruction as well as a graduate certificate for School District Administration, both from Fordham University. She is currently a doctoral student at Fordham University focusing on Education Administration, Policy, and Supervision. She resides with her husband and two children in New Jersey, on the sacred lands of the Munsee Lenape people.