Measuring Text Complexity

Instructor: Brittany Cross

Brittany teaches middle school Language Arts and has a master's degree for designing secondary reading curriculum.

This lesson focuses on the necessary components used by educators to measure a text's level of complexity. Using a three part model, teachers across the nation are digging into what truly makes a text grade appropriate, yet rigorous, for a student to read.

What is Text Complexity?

When choosing an appropriate text for a student to engage with there are SO many factors to keep in mind that it can be a challenge to decide on an appropriate piece that meets every requirement for age and development.

The Common Core state standards for English Language Arts are designed to continually push students into reading more complex texts that promote deep thinking and critical analysis as they progress through K-12. When determining the level of complexity of a text, we examine three categories:

  • a quantitative measure
  • a qualitative measure
  • the reader and task

Measures of Complexity

Quantitative measures are more or less the numbers and data regarding a text. What is the average word length or frequency? How long are the sentences?

A qualitative measure refers to what a reader can take out of a text in order to make sense of it. These include levels of meaning, author's purpose, the structure and language used, and the knowledge demands required to access the text.

The last of the categories looks at both the reader and the task. Examining the reader's motivations, knowledge, and experience when approaching a text combined with the tasks to be completed in conjunction with the reading is a key part of determining complexity.

Let's jump into the process of determining a complex text by using the example of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Part 1: Quantitative Measure

The nice part of the quantitative or 'quantity' measure is that it is best found through tools that rely on algorithms versus teacher decision. These formulas calculate a value or reading level based on word length and sentence length. Your quantitative measure will depend on which tool you are using to generate your reading level or score. The Lexile Framework, for example, denotes a lexile score of a 680 for The Grapes of Wrath. This places the book at a level equivalent to a proficient reader near the end of 7th grade.

Part 2: Qualitative Measure

When determining a qualitative measure of a text, think 'qualities' of a text. What qualities does a text have that may make it more challenging to access and discuss? When looking at the different categories, you can picture a linear progression from left to right. As a text moves further to the right, it becomes more complex.

Levels of Meaning or Purpose

When looking for meaning or purpose, some authors may be very outright with their message while others are less explicit and the meaning has to be inferred or derived from close reading. To illustrate this, picture this left to right continuum:

Single level of meaning --> Multiple levels of meaning

Explicit purpose for writing --> Hidden, implied purpose for writing

The levels of meaning in The Grapes of Wrath are considered to be more complex because there is the journey of the family through the dust bowl on the surface, but also an entire lengthy metaphor woven throughout the plot.


The structure of a text refers to how it is written. In a literary text for example, you may have a novel that is chronological, creating a lower level of complexity to access. Take a plot that includes subplots, flashbacks, and foreshadowing, however, and you have raised the bar. When examining structure you can use the following to evaluate a text:

simple plot --> complex plot

conventional, common style --> unconventional style

chronological order --> out of chronological order

As far as structure goes, The Grapes of Wrath is almost completely chronological, is told from a conventional point of view, and has a fairly simplistic plot. So on these criteria, it may not be as complex as other texts.

Language Conventionality and Clarity

Figurative language is a good way to start with this category. Examine these two sentences:

  • We ran home from school.
  • We flew like wind blown leaves dancing down the sidewalk towards home.

They both communicate the same meaning, but one employs figurative language to do so, making the text more complex for a student to access.

literal language--> figurative or ironic language

contemporary word choice--> archaic word choice

conversational everyday language--> general academic and domain specific words

The language of Steinbeck's text is clear for the most part until there is some dialect and time period specific words such as 'jalopy' that occur.

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