• Teaching Tips

Text Complexity: Thinking about Scope and Sequence

by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
January 29, 2013
We’ve been engaged in analyzing texts for complexity and teaching students to read them closely for almost two years now. We’ve seen students progress in their reading ability such that they begin to independently annotate texts, re-read, and dig deeply for meaning. We’ve had countless teachers tell us that they now realize that they have under-expected their students’ performance. Just last week, a kindergarten teacher said that she had never witnessed young children engage in the types of conversations they are this year, using evidence from the text in their discussions. She attributed it to her careful analysis of text complexity, the development of teaching points from that analysis, and her students’ close reading of the text.

Our own experience with adolescents is the same. The students at our high school enjoy close reading. We don’t do it every day, and when we do they know that they are going to read something that won’t give up the meaning easily or quickly, and that it’s going to be worth it when they finally get to that level of deep understanding.

For example, tenth grade teacher Marisol Thayre was close reading “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” by Viktor Frankl (1946). Her students were engaged in this complex piece of text, working hard to figure out how this fit with their understanding of the Holocaust and what they had learned from reading NIGHT (Weisel, 1982). Consistent with a close reading approach, the students in Ms. Thayre’s class annotate as they read, discuss their ideas with peers and the whole class using evidence from the text, and respond to a series of text dependent questions. (You can watch a part of Ms. Thayre’s class on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFRClI2q18Y.)

Similarly, the students in Mr. Vaca’s and Ms. Schaefer’s history classes are engaged in close reading of the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae (1915) as part of their studies of World War I. Again, the students annotated the text, discussed the text with their peers and the whole class using evidence from the text, and responded to a series of text dependent questions, such as:

  • How does the author’s use of metaphor help convey the message?
  • Who is the audience for this poem?
  • Can you identify the passage of time in each stanza? How does it impact the meaning of the poem?
  • Who is the author and what is his message?
  • What is the author’s belief about war?
An example of a student’s annotation and her first quick write and then final evaluation of the message can be found here.

As we have noted, the use of close reading has been beneficial for students as they engage in complex text. But that’s really not our point in writing this blog. Having been working on this for some time, we’re thinking more carefully about an appropriate scope and sequence for the teaching points in a close reading. We have identified a number of factors that contribute to text complexity (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012) including:

  • Density and complexity
  • Figurative language
  • Purpose
  • Genre
  • Organization
  • Narration
  • Text features and graphics
  • Standard English and variations
  • Register
  • Background knowledge
  • Prior knowledge
  • Cultural knowledge
  • Vocabulary
When texts are complex in any of these areas, they can become a teaching point during the close reading. For example, standard English is one of the factors that contribute to complexity in the poem “In Flanders Field.” In addition, lack of prior knowledge about World War I could contribute to the complexity, as could the density and complexity of the ideas, or the levels of meaning. In knowing this, Mr. Vaca and Ms. Schaefer integrate modeling and explanations in their close reading lessons.

photo: Enokson via photopin cc
By doing so, Mr. Vaca and Ms. Schaefer will build their students’ understanding of these specific aspects of text complexity. Over time, these factors will contribute less to the complexity as students master the knowledge and skills expected of them. Importantly, these factors can be assessed, and might just be with the new Common Core State Standards assessments (PARRC and SBAC). We’re fairly confident that integrating teaching points into the close reading through an analysis of the text’s complexity will result in increased prowess of students. We’re already seeing evidence of this after just a short time.

What we are concerned about is the scope and sequence that do not yet exist. What if the texts that are selected over a three-month period never are complex based on narration or figurative language, just to name two? Then students would not receive specific and targeted instruction on those two factors of text complexity and would be ill-prepared for texts that include these factors. It seems that we need to start making a list of the factors that contribute to text complexity, and there may be more than we have identified (for example, White, 2012 says that there are 34 text features that can obstruct text comprehension). We can begin to map texts that we have used to monitor our teaching points. For example, Mr. Vaca and Ms. Schaefer might start a grid like the one in figure 1 to ensure that their students experience a range of instructional topics appropriate for text complexity and close reading.

We’re wondering if anyone else is thinking about this. Do you have ideas about how to keep track of the teaching points related to close readings? Do you think that this is a worthy concern? We look forward to hearing from you.

WANT MORE? See Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey at IRA's 58th Annual Convention in San Antonio, where they will present "ACT NOW: Accessing Complex Texts" as part of the Teaching Edge series. For more information, go to www.iraconvention.org.


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2012). Text complexity: Raising rigor in reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Frankl, V. (1946/2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

White, S. (2012). Mining the text: 34 text features that can ease or obstruct text comprehension and use. Literacy Research & Instruction, 51, 143-164.

Wiesel, E. (1982). Night. New York: Bantam.

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors in the College of Education at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High and Middle College. They are interested in quality instruction for diverse learners and are coauthors with Diane Lapp of TEXT COMPLEXITY: RAISING RIGOR IN READING (International Reading Association, 2012).

© 2013 Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


1 Comment

  1. 1 Jennifer Jones 02 Feb

    I enjoyed your article very much.  I just presented this topic of text complexity and close readings to my (K-5) staff last week with a PPT I created to demonstrate some of the major elements that make text complex using several examples from Shanahan's powerpoints and several examples from my own classroom lessons.  Here is my blog post about it (with my embedded presentation): http://www.helloliteracy.blogspot.com/2013/01/fifty-shades-of-common-core-part-2.html 

    I am also facilitating a text complexity coaching cycle with the 2nd and 3rd grade teachers from my own school and have invited other teachers who follow my blog to join if they want to.  When the Thunder Cake cycle ends in a week, someone else will take a turn writing the lesson plan for everyone, until everyone gets the hang of planning for and conducting a close reading lesson.  Thanks for your post! 

    Jennifer Jones


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