Mass Literacy

Choosing and Using Complex Text

Every Student, Every Day

Sonia Cabell
"Access to high-quality literacy instruction is an equity issue because research shows that children who are growing up in poverty often do not have the same access to high-quality literacy instruction as their more economically-advantaged peers. Reading and being able to read well, sets the foundation for all that we do in life. It's important that everyone be able to get that good start."
Sonia Cabell
Assistant Professor of Education
Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University

All students should engage with complex text regularly by reading or listening. All students, regardless of grade or current reading ability, deserve access to rich, engaging, and authentic literature every day in school. In the younger grades, this happens primarily through read-alouds. As children progress through the grades, they increasingly read grade-level complex text on their own, although read-aloud remains beneficial. Engagement with this type of text is critical to reading development. Importantly, engaging with complex text is not leveled instruction. During a complex text lesson, instruction may be scaffolded while the text at the center of instruction is at or above grade level.

What is Complex Text?

Text complexity is defined by a range of qualitative and quantitative features, and depends on the reader and task for which it is selected (see DESE Quick Reference Guide: Text Complexity and the Growth of Reading Comprehension ). Complex text offers opportunities to develop academic language and acquire knowledge about the world, both of which contribute to development of reading comprehension (Shanahan et al., 2010 ). The Massachusetts 2017 English Language Arts and Literacy Framework places "equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read. Standard 10 defines a grade-by-grade 'staircase' of increasing text complexity that rises from beginning reading to the college and career readiness level" (page 12).

Not every text selected for instruction needs to be complex, but easier texts should be purposefully selected with the goal of scaffolding students' access to increasingly complex related texts.

When working with a complex text, the ultimate teaching goal is for students to understand the text, not to "practice" a particular strategy or a standard. Thus, the choice of text is not incidental but the center of the lesson.

To provide coherent sets of texts and tasks that meet the demands of the standards, and to meet the unique needs of all students, teachers must have access to high-quality curriculum materials from which to plan. The CURATE project provides information about published curricular materials and resources for high-quality curricular materials.

Building Vocabulary and Knowledge

Engaging with complex text is an important classroom activity to build vocabulary and knowledge, both of which are essential for development of reading comprehension. Development of vocabulary and knowledge begins at birth and must be supported from the earliest days of formal schooling.

Vocabulary knowledge is intimately linked to conceptual knowledge. "Big ideas and complex questions cannot be separated from the language used to represent them… A reader's comprehension of a story depends greatly upon the knowledge and language she brings to the experience" (Lesaux & Russ Harris, 2015).

"Knowledge of the world is crucial for comprehending text as well as the development of thinking abilities overall" (Willingham, 2006). Sets of topically related texts, and in-depth discussions and writing about those topics during ELA instruction, help students build knowledge in a coherent way .

Using texts in related sets is a widely recognized strategy to build students' topical and conceptual knowledge. Teachers select key concepts and vocabulary from text sets and provide explicit instruction on those words, along with authentic practice through discussion and writing. Activating background knowledge related to the text topics, and building upon that knowledge to increase it through daily instruction, are practices that enhance reading comprehension over time (Cabell & Hwang, 2020).

As Adams (2010) explained, students should read a sequence of increasingly complex texts "so that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge needed for the next. Gradually, students will be ready for texts of greater complexity" (Adams, 2010 ).

Explicit vocabulary instruction often occurs at the beginning of a lesson, before reading the text. Selecting high-value words to teach that recur throughout a topic or text set is an effective approach for vocabulary development (Lesaux & Russ Harris, 2015).

Resources for Developing Knowledge and Vocabulary Using Text Sets

In addition to explicit vocabulary teaching, implicit vocabulary learning occurs when children hear, use, and interact with words in their reading and discussion of texts and topics. Extensive opportunities for discussion of complex text are critical to language development.

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all literacy instruction. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

When building vocabulary and knowledge as part of engaging with complex text, English Learners may need instruction in what are often referred to as Tier 1 words (words that native speakers tend to pick up from oral language experience alone). Also, if a student understands a concept and has a word for that concept in their native language, then the student only needs to learn the English word and recognize it as a synonym. However, if the student doesn't yet have the concept in question, then vocabulary instruction needs to be more thorough (Carlo et. al., 2004).

Supports for English Learners:

  • Incorporate reading selections that have topics, settings, concepts, references, and cultural contexts that are familiar and relevant (Lesaux et al., 2010)
  • Help students activate and build knowledge (Baker et al., 2014).
  • Survey or preview the text before reading it (Brown et al.,1995)
  • Teach word meanings through explicit instruction in combination with rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact in meaningful contexts (Carlo et al., 2004); Lesaux et al., 2010)
  • Teach relationships between words (Lesaux et al., 2010)
  • Offer multiple exposures to new words in different contexts; for instance, have students choose which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation or ranking words according to meaningful criteria (Carlo et al., 2004; Lesaux et al., 2010)
  • Provide explicit instruction and practice in morphology; reinforce understanding of word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes (Carlo et al., 2004; Lesaux et al., 2010)
  • Teach students to recognize cognates and how to use them to create meaning whenever words in their home language have similar meaning and form as English (Carlo et al., 2004)

Learn More:

Supporting Students to Use Comprehension Strategies with Complex Text

Comprehension strategies are "intentional mental actions during reading that improve reading comprehension" (Shanahan et al., 2010 , page 11). Some of the most commonly taught reading comprehension strategies include self-monitoring, questioning, inferring, and visualizing. Research has shown that readers with good comprehension do use these strategies, especially self-monitoring and inferring (Willingham, 2006 ; Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015).

Supporting Development of Reading Comprehension Strategies

Reading strategies are not the same as reading comprehension. "Rather," writes cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, they are "a bag of tricks that can indirectly improve comprehension. These tricks are easy to learn and require little practice, but students must be able to decode fluently before these strategies can be effective" (Willingham, 2006 ).

Comprehension strategies should be understood as a means to an end. They are not the purpose of reading, but rather a tool to understand the meaning of the text. A recent meta-study (Elleman, 2017) found that most studies of comprehension strategy teaching showed positive results in relatively short periods of time (i.e., less than 10 hours of instruction). Students can learn these strategies through relatively brief instruction and then proceed to apply these strategies when working with complex text.

Evidence from classroom studies suggests that students benefit most from strategy instruction when they are able to read meaningful texts independently and fluently. For many children, this stage is achieved around second grade (Elleman 2017, Willingham, 2006 ).

Culturally Responsive Practice

Selecting texts to read and topics to study in early literacy is a particularly salient opportunity to be culturally responsive. Texts should provide "mirrors and windows" for children; allowing students both to see themselves (characters and communities that are familiar) and to see and learn about others in the texts they read (Bishop, 1990). Diverse representation in texts means that characters, settings, and authors should be diverse as well as reflective of students' community. In selecting texts it is important to go beyond superficial representation and to carefully avoid common biases in curricular materials (Zittleman & Sadker, 2002 ), which can include stereotypes, lack of diverse representation, or "unreality."

In contrast to biased curricular materials, Tatum (2009) describes qualities of "enabling texts" that positively support students' development of identity and capacity. For instance, these texts:

  • Provide a modern awareness of the real world
  • Serve as a road map for being, doing, thinking and acting
  • Demonstrate resiliency
  • Avoid caricatures
  • Recognize, honor & nurture multiple identities (Tatum, 2009).

Learn More:

Sources of Information for Educators: Choosing and Using Complex Text


Bishop, R. (1990). "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors." Ohio State University. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).

Brown, R., Pressley, M., Van Meter, P., & Schuder, T. (1995). A quasi-experimental validation of transactional strategies instruction with previously low-achieving, second-grade readers (Reading Research Report no. 33). Athens, GA: National Reading Research Center.

Cabell, S.Q., & Hwang, H. (2020). Building Content Knowledge to Boost Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S99–S107.

Carlo, M. S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C. E., Dressler, C., Lippman, D., . . . White, C. E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs for English language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(2), 188–215. doi:10.1598/RRQ.39.2.3

Elleman, A. M. (2017). Examining the impact of inference instruction on the literal and inferential comprehension of skilled and less skilled readers: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 761–781.

Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Faller, S. E., & Kelley, J. G. (2010). The effectiveness and ease of implementation of an academic vocabulary intervention for linguistically diverse students in urban middle schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 196–228. doi:10.1598/ RRQ.45.2.3

Lesaux, N. and Russ Harris, J. (2015). Cultivating knowledge, building language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., and Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook. London: Routledge.

Coomer, M. N., Skelton, S. M., Kyser, T. S. (2017). Assessing Bias in Standards and Curricular Materials. Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center.

Tatum, Alfred. (2009). Reading for Their Life: (re)building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males. Heinemann.

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Last Updated: January 21, 2021

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