Marilyn Adams on Text Complexity

  • 06 February, 2011

Recently, the American Educator republished a chapter of Marilyn Adams. I have featured Marilyn’s input here before (thank you, thank you), but this recent pub is a must read as far as I’m concerned (and so I have included a link to it at the end of this blog).

  The good Dr. Adams documents how American textbooks have grown simpler over time. I’ve long believed that the measurement of text difficulty was a great scientific advance, but as useful as that tool can be, it has been a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to supporting students’ reading achievement. You see, teachers and publishers have been hyper-aware there always seems to be someone who will have difficulty with some text or other, and so they have striven to provide easier texts (texts that will leave no one behind). Their solution means that kids get a steady stream of texts with easier words and less complex sentences and text structure.

  I have no doubt that the textbooks for older kids have gotten easier and easier, but there is more to it than that. While the books themselves have been providing less mental exercise, I believe (and this is not well documented) that many middle school and secondary teachers are less likely to have students reading those texts than was true a generation ago (or if they are read, it is done using round robin or some variant which usually means that most of the kids do little reading or thinking).

  Awhile back, Achieve asked me to help draft a statement that they were using with various state standards. The statement often served as a preamble to grade level standards, and it indicated that text difficulty was important. (For example, students might be able to draw great inferences with a third grade text, but not with a fifth grade one. Just working on inferencing makes no sense unless the text is hard enough).

  As terrific as I thought that preamble was, it was generally ignored by teachers and testers. The reason? It wasn’t one of the standards. (People love those numbered lists).

As a result of such experiences, the common core standards includes both a huge appendix about text difficulty, and a numbered item about text difficulty in every set of reading standards. People might ignore the appendix, but they can’t miss that text difficulty item. That means that textbooks are likely to start getting harder again.

  However, just throwing kids into harder text won’t solve the problem, especially if teachers simply skip those books when they are difficult.

  When I was in Ireland last fall, I was working with a group of teachers and elementary students. When I finished up the lesson and the children were trooped out, one of the teachers pointed out that I handled the hard text issue differently than they did. “When we find that the children struggle with a text, we put them in something easier [a la guided reading]. But you taught the students how to handle the harder material.”

  This idea of using challenging (not impossible texts) is important. Students do need texts that they can read, but they also need to stretch. Towards that end, I suggest the following:

  1. Students should get daily experience in school in reading something hard and something relatively easy. The hard material really should be a challenge—even a year or two beyond their reading level! The easy stuff needs to be something that is intellectually challenging, but with easy enough language that they are not struggling with the words much (in fact, it can even be something that they are rereading).

  2. The difficult reading materials should be heavily scaffolded. That means the teacher must provide lots of instructional support to help the kids succeed with the material that is supposedly “too hard” for them.

  3. In full agreement, with Marilyn A., one of those scaffolds should be direct instruction in vocabulary. That can mean substantial lessons in particular word meanings and it might mean that the teacher just tells the students meanings as needed as well.

  4. Another scaffold should be oral reading fluency work. It is easier to untangle complex sentences when you are working on the prosody of such sentences. That means students should be spending some time reading these texts aloud with feedback (supervised paired reading). This work could also include listening to the teacher (or an audio recording) and then trying it themselves.

  5. A third scaffold should be some kind of productive work with the text. This might include participating in a discussion or writing about the text or trying to develop a chart or some other visual representation of the ideas. The key point is to get the meaning.

  6. Yet another way to explore a hard text is to build up to it, by reading more than one text on the same subject (maybe an easier, less detailed or thorough version can help kids to bootstrap to the more difficult one). In any event, these kinds of easier “mentor texts” should not replace the reading of the challenging text.

  7. And, finally, as this hard text becomes easier for the students –and with such scaffolding, such texts do become easier -- this text can be used as an easier text that might be worth rereading again later.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Audrey Bennett Dec 03, 2022 09:34 PM

This has been my practice whenever I've taught Literacy to secondary students. But my current class includes students who are reading at the K-1 level. Their iReady scores show they haven't mastered phonics, so I'm looking for ways to adjust instruction accordingly. These students have no word attack skills and extremely limited background knowledge. (I hope what I'm seeing is related more to the pandemic shutdowns than to their elementary reading experiences.) I'm especially interested in knowing which materials and instructional strategies have been found to trigger the most growth.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 04, 2022 04:37 PM


I would question those assessment results (check past educational records, for instance). Those sound more like students not wanting to participate in the assessment rather than students revealing a total lack of decoding skills and world knowledge. If they are that low in decoding, those students will likely require a much more substantial instructional investment than a typical literacy class. According to experts who deal with these kinds of problems all the time, small group intensive instruction for two years will be necessary. Clip the following link into your search tool and you will find a piece I wrote about this in the past.


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Marilyn Adams on Text Complexity


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.