Strategy Guide

Promote Deep Thinking! How to Choose a Complex Text

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Strategy Guide Series
Teaching Literacy Across the Gradual Release of Responsibility

About this Strategy Guide

Close reading engages students in deep thinking concerning a complex text. Through rereading, students answer text-dependent questions that promote critical analysis; therefore, the text must be complex enough to merit such attention. This strategy guide helps you consider the various factors that contribute to complexity.


Research Basis

Students improve their thinking when they are supported in reading a complex text. Through close readings of such a text, students apply critical thinking strategies, which they then begin to generalize to other areas of reading (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012).

Several components of a text can lead to complexity. Quantitative measures, including readability levels that consider semantic difficulty and sentence complexity, can indicate a challenging text. Qualitatively, a text can be complex based on levels of meaning, purpose, or textual features. A text can also be complex due to the characteristics of the reader or task (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012). Not all texts warrant a close reading, especially if they are easily understood. However, with careful text selection, teachers can scaffold students’ reading of a complex text, resulting in students independently reading more complex materials over time (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012).

Strategy in Practice

To complete a close reading, you must select a text that is complex, warranting rereading and critical analysis by your students. When choosing a text, consider the following areas of complexity:

  • Quantitative complexity:
    • Readability is an average, so it's possible a selection from the text is more or less complex than the text as a whole.
    • A text is complex if it's above students' independent reading level. Fisher and Frey (2012) suggest these measures may be unreliable for primary students.
    • When considering readability measures like lexile levels, Gail Gibbons or Patricia Polacco texts are examples of quantitative complexity for primary students.
  • Qualitative complexity:
    • Per Fisher, Frey, and Lapp (2012), qualitative complexity addresses the following factors:
      • The levels of meaning/purpose and the ease with which they are identified
      • The amount of figurative language used in the text
      • The conformity of the text to genre expectations
      • The organization of the text and amount of supportive text features
      • The match between language used by the text (including vocabulary and word choice) and language used by the students
      • The register (formal to informal) used in the text
      • The demands the text places on the reader's knowledge
    • A qualitatively complex text may be challenging in one or more of these domains. For example, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes is challenging for primary students based on language use, whereas Tomie dePaola's Legend of the Indian Paintbrush places heavy demands on a reader's background knowledge.
  • Reader characteristics/task considerations:
    • Based on the reader's capabilities, a text can be complex regardless of its quantitative or qualitative characteristics.
    • Student motivation affects complexity.
    • How students are asked to respond to a text influences complexity. Teacher support allows access to a text too complex for students independently.

You have the most information about your students; if the text meets your instructional objectives and one or more of the listed domains can be described as challenging for your students, it is complex and can be used for a close reading.


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