How to Balance Text Complexity to Boost Reading Skills

by Susan Baxter


Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be good at anything, and practicing early and often makes all the difference in proficiency. But Gladwell also noted that repetition alone is not enough. Deliberate practice, which constantly pushes the limits of skill sets, is the secret to mastery.

This fundamental concept can be applied to early childhood reading. Time spent reading at grade level is critical to improve reading skills and proficiency, but more important is gently pushing the limits of ability by gradually increasing text complexity, which stimulates growth.

Below is a list of six reading strategies that can help you add complexity to your students’ reading and improve reading comprehension skills.

1. Utilize Readability Tools

Reading assessment tools, such as the Lexile Framework, can be a great starting point for connecting students with the right texts. These measurement systems identify reading levels by grade, and some allow you to use formal and informal reading assessments to understand a student’s ability and match reading options to their level.

Keep in mind that a tool such as the Lexile Framework should be one of several criteria that are used to select texts and that all aspects of a text should be evaluated before determining the appropriateness of a book.

2. Provide Varied Reading Levels

Maintaining Your Leveled Book Collection
Each new school year, meet with colleagues to review, replace, and update selections. This collaborative effort can enable broader discussions about students and reading strategies.

Having a library of leveled texts makes it easier for your students to select books for reading. You can build your own leveled collection by working with colleagues to gather and evaluate books, organizing your library by level of text. Be sure to offer variety at each level so that students develop the ability to process a range of texts.

3. Use Text Levels Appropriately

In a recent article published in School Library Journal, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, the creators of the “A to Z” reading system gradient, expressed concern that their text leveling system was not being used correctly. Designed to be a “teacher’s tool, not a child’s label,” they make recommendations for the proper use of a text leveling system:

  • Use a leveling gradient to inform decisions about how to introduce a book, conduct discussions around a book, and help students effectively engage with and process a text.
  • Create classroom libraries rich with a variety of genres, topics, and authors that will infuse children with a desire to read, and then let them make reading choices.
  • Use insights gained from a leveling system to guide students in choosing texts that will improve reading comprehension skills as well as provide enjoyment.

4. Find the Right Text Complexity Balance

When increasing text complexity, be sure to strike the ideal balance between comfort and challenge. Texts should be difficult enough that your students improve skills, but not so difficult that they’re discouraged. A good guideline to follow is that students should understand 75 percent of the text they are reading, allowing them to comprehend the majority while also being exposed to new learning.

Tips for Selecting Texts

  • Choose books that align to your standards and goals
  • Select texts that support specific assignments
  • Match the age and developmental level of your students

5. Offer Free Choice Reading

While organizing books by level helps control options, it can exclude books that students might otherwise choose that interest them. Be sure to give students a choice in reading, which not only allows them to match their interests, but also brings a number of important benefits including increased engagement, closer and more critical reading, and improved comprehension.

6. Use Digital Platforms

Digital reading platforms are a wonderful resource for exposing students to more complex texts. Many offer leveled texts, and almost all include some kind of scaffolded learning supports such as word definitions, explanations of key passages, questions that promote critical thinking, and links to additional resources.

For teachers, the ultimate goal of reading instruction should be to help their students develop the critical reading skills they need to work with ever-increasing text complexity. When students are exposed to challenging texts, they acquire mature thinking and language skills, both of which are vital for success in all levels of school, college, and ultimately the workplace.


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