Determining Text Complexity

You’ve combed through your library. You’ve done your research. Finally, you have texts that will help push forward your unit concepts and be of high-interest to your students.

Now what?

Determining how to break open the wonderful world contained in a book can be a daunting task. Your book is full of many great lessons, literary features and ideas that you want to expose to your students. This easy-to-follow guide will give you several ways to break down a text so you can deliver the most meaningful instruction possible to your students.

There are three main ways of looking at text complexity. The quantitative, qualitative and reader and task considerations all determine how useful and appropriate a book or text is for your unit objectives. This post will focus on qualitative measures, as these seemingly ambiguous factors are often the most useful in determining what aspects of the text to teach and how.

There are four aspects that make up the qualitative measures of text complexity. Meaning and Purpose, Structure, Language and Knowledge Demands all must be considered when determining what parts of the text to teach to students and how to break down your lessons to ensure a full understanding of the book or text at hand.

  1.          Meaning/Purpose

The first thing to consider when determining how to access and teach a book is the layers of meaning present in a fiction text, or the author’s purpose in a non-fiction text. Determining if the author’s message is straightforward or obscured is the first consideration, as otherwise students wouldn’t access the essence of the text. If meaning or purpose might hold students back, consider delivering a few lessons around breaking down hints at the author’s meaning throughout the text so students can fully access the rich ideas found within the text.

  1.            Structure

                    Structure refers to the author’s craft moves of layout, timeline and information. If a story follows a straightforward, chronological order there wouldn’t be a need to have a teaching point or lesson around the structure. However, if a story jumps forward and backward in time, this structure would typically need to be previewed for readers. Similarly, if a non-fiction text has simple headings and subheadings that are easy to follow, your readers can likely access the text. However, if the non-fiction text has many footnotes or diagrams that contain information not found in the main text, you would likely direct your readers attention to these differences in structure.

  1.            Language

Determining vocabulary words and accessibility can sometimes feel overwhelming. How to choose from all the awesome, rigorous words in your properly-leveled text? Pay attention here to language that impedes meaning as well as Tier 2 vocabulary words. If a reader can figure out a complex word based on context clues, allow the reader to do this. If there is a complex word that isn’t easily defined by context clues, but also isn’t a useful word for students to know, consider defining it in the moment. The remaining meaty words are the words to choose from for vocabulary activities and lessons.

  1.            Knowledge Demands

Knowledge demands refer to the prior knowledge a reader would need to access the text. Sometimes, the inclination is to give background information on all aspects of the text. However, you must ask yourself: can my students glean this information without my telling them or setting them up? If the book provides enough details about the culture or topic that it’s about, or the information isn’t essential to the central idea of the text, there isn’t a need to conduct lessons around that topic. However, if there are cultural elements in a fiction text or content specific concepts in a non-fiction text that the text does not explain, consider devising a lesson or two around the knowledge demands of the text.

In the era of the Common Core, we are choosing rigorous, meaty texts for our students to dive into. This breakdown of text complexity will help ensure that our students are getting the most out of each text they encounter, and that we are teaching with purpose and meaning in mind. The below question bank is taken from our curriculum guide, Be Core Ready by Pam Allyn. It details questions you can ask yourself to determine the measures of text complexity. 


Contact: – I will always get back to you!

– – Talia Kovacs

Levels of Meaning / Author’s Purpose


  • What are the levels of meaning in this story?
  • What themes or lessons exist in this story?
  • Are the levels of meaning simple, or do they require some deeper analysis to access?


  • What is the purpose of this piece?
  • Is the purpose obvious to the reader or is it hard to figure out why it was written?
  • Who is the intended audience for this piece?



  • What is the structure of the story?
  • Is the story told in a simple, chronological format?
  • Does this story use a more complex structure such as non sequential storytelling or take liberties with manipulating time?


  • Is the information presented simply, without regard to specific formats unique to certain disciplines?
  • Is the information presented according to the complex structures of specific disciplines?
  • Is the structure common to the subgenre of informational text it represents?
  • Are multiple structures included?
  • Are the graphics easy to access or do they require more complex knowledge?

Language Conventions and Clarity

  • Is the language in the piece casual and easy to understand?
  • Is the language in the piece more academic or professional in nature?
  • Is the vocabulary in the piece complex or simple?
  • Is the language in the piece more literal, or are there heavy doses of figurative language?
  • Is the language in the piece modern or archaic?

Knowledge Demands

  • What tasks are required for interacting with and fully comprehending the text? Are they straightforward or do they require more analytical thinking?
  • Does the text assume a high level of cultural knowledge?
  • Does the text assume a high level of literary knowledge?
  • Does the text assume a high level of content knowledge?
  • Is the text rooted in common, everyday experience or does it rely on fantasy or imagination?

Three Strategies to Increase Engagement

Student engagement is a key indicator of the planning and thoughtfulness a teacher puts into the classroom. With the demands of teaching, it can be difficult to reflect and change our practices to increase student engagement and participation. Focusing on engagement gives students more opportunities to express their academic opinions and ideas. Once we have the attention of students, we can truly execute great lessons in a warm and positive environment.

According to research from Yazzie-Mintz, two out of three high school students report boredom at least every day in a class; only 2% are never bored in class. These numbers aren’t shocking, but provide an opportunity for teachers to actively plan out engagement in their classrooms.

We have provided three strategies that teachers should use as they revise or create lesson plans. These skills can be used throughout the lesson and are great practices from all ages of students.

Three Strategies for Engagement
1. Cold Call

Arguably, one of the oldest techniques and most commonly known, but the “cold call” is often used incorrectly. In order to effectively use cold calling, students must have your trust. Additionally, it can not be used as a classroom management technique. Students who are off-task should not be called on to respond to text or questions. This creates a message that sharing or speaking is punitive. Instead, use it to increase anticipation by pausing after posing a question. The opposite of cold call is pre-call where students alerted that they are going to be called on next or have time to gather their answer. Often used for differentiation or students with delayed processing issues.

2. Right is Right

This strategy is about pushing students towards the complete answer. As teachers, we often respond to partially correct answers from students and we add details to make it completely correct. In holding out for accurate answers, we set high academic parameters. A simple way to execute this is by asking students to repeat an answer with the appropriate academic language which expands comfort and vocabulary.

Phrases to use:

“I like the majority of that…”  

“Expand on that thought…”

“Chris, you’re 90% correct. Can you make your answer 100%?”

“That’s a great answer, but I want to know the next step.”

3. Call and Response

Call and Response is an efficient way to make sure students participate and recall key information in class. There are several variations that can help students achieve. Student are more likely to remember when an answer is repeated. If an individual child gives an answer, it is a good practice for the whole-class to repeat it. Call and Response can be great for review as well.  For instance, “Who is the main character in Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Call it out on three. One..two…three…” This practice is great after independent practice as well. Read out questions or problems from the in-class assignment and have the whole class answer. “The main idea in the short story is…All together on two.”

A combination of these strategies will definitely help increase retention and behavioral control in your classroom. Remember, these strategies can often be pre-planned in your lessons!

What are some strategies you use to ensure student engagement?

Questions/Comments? Write below or email We will always get back to you within a week.

Classroom Engagement Techniques for the Beginning of the Year

Your classroom is finally set up. Desks are placed with room for collaboration and direct instruction, the walls are filled with inspiring quotes and informational posters. Pencils are sharp and erasers are whole. You have your yearly plan mapped out, your first few units sketched together and some great read-alouds in your back pocket.

At LitLife, we want to support you to deliver fantastic instruction to your students. However, even the best and most engaging instruction will only be effective if your students are invested in your classroom community and ready to learn.

These 5 quick tips will ensure that your students get every ounce of instruction you give.

  1.       Create Buy-In

Every person, no matter their age, works better with others when they are happy and feel that their needs are being met. Giving kids something to say ‘yes’ to makes your life as a teacher easier, as your students are already poised to learn and buy in to what you are saying. Your students should feel like they are an integral part of the classroom community.

Some concrete tips:
 Proactively explain to students that our classroom is a place for learning, where wrong answers happen and are encouraged because that’s what promotes learning.
Find out your students’ interests and connect learning to their lives

  1.      Monitor Tone

Often as teachers, we get caught up with our teacher voice and worrying about how we’re perceived to kids. Instead of putting on a cookie-cutter commanding voice, imagine you are talking to a peer in a formal setting. This will ensure that your voice is not coming off as too loud to too strict.  Students and colleagues alike appreciate when you are your authentic self.  No one wants to be talked down to, so ensure that your students feel cared for and respected by using a respectful tone of voice.

Some concrete tips:
Practice your formal, teacher tone in front of a mirror.
Tape record yourself and imagine you were talking to a colleague or giving a presentation to adults – would you want to be spoken to this way?

  1.       Positive Framing

People of all ages are more likely to comply with your directions and strive for greatness when they feel like they are already successful. There will be times at the beginning of the school year where your class is perhaps not listening to every word you say or you simply feel that things on the whole are not going very well. When these moments happen, it is very important to ensure that you are positively framing the situation, allowing kids to feel successful and also helping you to see the good.

Some concrete tips:
Rephrase your directions without the word “don’t.” For example: “don’t talk” can be rephrased as “remain silent.
If you feel kids aren’t listening to you, talk about the ones who are. For example: “I’m waiting for 10 of you to fold your hands” can be rephrased as “I see 5 kids already folded their hands and are ready to learn.”

  1.       Do Not Talk Over

The most important tool in your teacher toolkit is your voice. It is through your voice that kids will learn, will receive directions about working with each other and will respond calmly in an emergency. Therefore, it is imperative that your students understand that when you are speaking, your words are important and everyone is listening. The main way to get kids of all ages ingrained in this habit is through a teaching technique that’s at its core, something not to do instead of something to do. Do Not Talk Over. Simply put, if you hear a whisper or think it’s possible your class isn’t fully listening to you, stop talking. Talking over other voices leads to the impression that that is allowed in the classroom and also has the undesirable effect of making your voice get louder, diminishing your authority.

Some concrete tips:
If you hear a whisper while you’re speaking, interrupt yourself. Cutting yourself off mid-sentence is a powerful way of sending the message that your words are important.
Use quiet power. Instead of getting louder with your class, getting quieter and lowering your voice forces students to slightly strain to listen, often causing your class to get quieter as well.

  1.       Break the Plane

As teachers, we are performers. We must convey that we are running the show, that students can trust us with their learning. A great way to convey ownership over the classroom, especially at the beginning of the year before your community is fully built, is to break the plane and use proximity. Breaking the plane simply means that you don’t only stand at the front of your classroom while teaching. Moving around between rows, from the front to the back and teaching from the sidelines conveys leadership and warmth. This allows students to feel that they are taken care of and can trust that you will lead them down a path of learning all year.

Some concrete tips:
Teach from the back of the room. Having students turn to look at you creates visual compliance, allowing you to see that all students are following you.
Walk around the room as you speak, giving high-fives or stars on students papers. Getting immediate feedback and contact with teachers allows students to feel successful and remain on-task for longer.

Questions/Comments? Contact: – I will always get back to you within a week.

— Talia Kovacs

Creating Your Classroom Reading Collection (Classroom Library)

The beginning of the year is a great time to ensure that you and your students have adequate reading material for the year. In the past, you may have put in an order to your local bookstore or done a donorschoose. Now, with the abundance of reading material readily available to even the smallest readers, we at LitLife and Be Core Ready prefer to call the wealth of reading material a “Classroom Reading Collection.” Having a Classroom Reading Collection (CRC) allows you as the teacher to think of reading material not only as books, but as articles, online books, online blogs and other authentic reading experiences that we as adults take for granted. The more authentic and engaging, the more your students will feel invested in their reading experiences.

Your classroom reading collection is the most important collection of materials you will use all year for reading and writing lessons. It should support your teaching by providing high-quality examples of the types of texts you will highlight in your lessons, and it should mirror the Common Core Standards for your grade level. Most importantly, your classroom reading collection should be inviting and exciting for your students, providing them with rich and rewarding choices for their daily reading practice. As you organize your classroom collection, consider the following suggestions for groupings of texts:

Literary Text:

  • Historical Fiction
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction
  • Fairy Tales
  • Myths
  • Mysteries
  • Adventures
  • Fantasy
  • Tall Tales
  • Fables
  • Legends
  • Animal Stories
  • Literary Magazines
  • Poetry Collections
  • Book Series
  • Author Collections

Informational Text

  • Informational Books and Articles
  • Human Interest Biographies
  • Autobiographies
  • Infographs
  • Blogs
  • Informational Magazines

Argument Text

  • Book, Movie or Product Reviews
  • Persuasive Articles
  • Social Media Posts
  • Editorials
  • Op/Ed articles
  • Letters to the Editor

Topics of Interest to Class:

  • Little Bill Books (or any series)
  • Books We’ve Read Aloud
  • Beverly Cleary Books (or any author)
  • Space (or any other topic)
  • Amazing Animals
  • Award Winners
  • American Heroes
  • Books about Amazing Girls
  • Famous African Americans
  • Books about Amazing Boys
  • Around the World
  • Crawly Creatures
  • Books that Have Movies
  • Books about Overcoming Obstacles
  • Funny Books
  • Last Year’s Class Recommendations
  • What We are Learning About Now
  • Recommended by a Classmate
  • Teacher’s Picks
  • Principal’s Picks
  • Star of the Week’s Picks
  • Books to Read When You are Sad
  • New on the Scene

Websites to Bookmark:

These are, of course, just examples. Your best bet is to know your students and your curriculum thoroughly enough to build a collection that matches both as well as it can!

Questions? Comments?

Comment Below or Email: – we will always get back to you within a week!

For further explanation, watch this informative video found on our Pearson Core Ready PD Toolkit:

Using Text Types for Unit Planning

As the school year comes to a close, it’s time to plan, reflect, and revise what our students are reading and writing. Planning a well-balanced scope and sequence can leave teachers feeling frustrated and concerned about the variety of text selection per unit or in a yearly calendar. In general, there are three text types that should be integrated throughout the year in all grades: informational, narrative, and argumentative. Ideally, each unit of study should include examples of each as we devise our themes or units.

Why is it important?

We want students to be able to see different types of texts are in service of themes. The other benefits of incorporating various texts includes increased engagement for students, exposure of more topics, and routinizing how all pieces of writing have a purpose—either to persuade, entertain, or inform. For teachers who have struggled with integrating nonfiction into their curriculum, this is a perfect opportunity to ensure a more balanced, real-world approach to literacy.

Let’s take a close look at these examples:


Elementary school units provide an ideal opportunity to use different types of text in unit planning. Primarily, lower grade units are thematic based using real objects, multiple modalities, and disciplines. For example, a 1st grade unit on underwater life. Begin with a read aloud of the nonfiction book, Do Animals Take Baths? As an all-about book, student begin forming questions around how animals live in the water. Following the all-about book, the teacher does a guided reading with a narrative book like Meet the Octopus by Sylvia James. Students are then asked to respond to an opinion prompt about  which underwater creature is their favorite.

Middle Example

A popular central idea in middle schools is coming-of-age. Students are able to use text-to-real world connections and generally, have opinions about self and maturity.  The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton represents realistic fiction as the narrative and contains strong examples of teenage problems. A potential essential idea could be if peer pressure can negatively affect how someone acts in public. To expose students to informational texts, an article from NPR entitled “Elephant Emotions” is presented as a close reading lesson. The article details how elephants can influence the behavior of other in their parade or herd. The argumentative text was a New York Times editorial, “Peer Pressure Can Be a Lifesaver”.

High School Example

One of the classic books taught in high school is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald . Over the years, it has remained a hallmark for its analysis of identity. The theme considered could be if it is possible to reinvent or escape your past. For argument, students could evaluate and state a claim about “6 Steps To Managing Your Online Reputation” by Forbes magazine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, students read and response to an authentic New York Tribune from the 1920s. The informational text provides key facts about the lives, wages, and political climate during the period of The Great Gatsby.

The Common Core highly encourages that students have varying and diverse formats in their reading and writing. We suggest making this a part of your regular routine to keep rigor and investment high in your classrooms. Not only does this provide rich experiences and exposure for students, it will help you grow as a teacher as you navigate several texts based on similar themes and ideas.

– Brian Johnson

LitLife’s Summer Reading Suggestions!

Summer is just around the corner and with it comes the excitement of sunny days and a long break from school for our students. While we take time to appreciate summer’s myriad gifts, it is also important to ensure that reading is at the center of our summer activities. We must provide continuous access to books of all kinds so that our students will begin the new school year feeling enriched, prepared, and confident in their reading identities. We appreciate books that challenge us, inspire us, and call on our imaginations during those long, hot days. Below are some of our favorites!

summer reading

Grades K-2

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Mo Willems is a popular and beloved author and Knuffle Bunny is a perfect example of why his words and stories are so appealing and so widely read. A routine trip to the laundromat becomes dramatic when the young protagonist, Trixie, leaves behind her beloved stuffed animal. Willems’ book is warm and enjoyable- just like summer!

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

The first in a series, Atinuke tells the story of Anna Hibiscus, a young girl who lives in Africa with her family. This book is a great resource for teaching children about another culture while emphasizing the universalities of every childhood. Readers will be eager to explore all of the books in the Anna Hibiscus series.

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Henlon

Dory is spunky, curious, imaginative, and energetic. Her story is told in chapter book form, which makes Henlon’s book an excellent choice for a read-aloud or a great selection for independent readers in search of early and accessible chapter books. Dory’s enthusiasm is annoying to her siblings, Luke and Violet, but her silly questions and wonderings (“why do we have armpits?”) will make her a favorite among young readers.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

Beekle is a lovable and endearing protagonist in this unique and deeply engrossing picture book. Santat’s spin on the familiar concept of the “imaginary friend” is both whimsical and touching, and readers will embrace Beekle with open arms.

Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China, by Ed Young

Winner of the 1990 Caldecott Medal, Young artfully tells the story of three sisters who encounter Lon Po Po, a wolf pretending to be their grandmother. Told from the point of view of the sisters, with beautiful and haunting panel illustrations, this twist on the classic Little Red-Riding Hood is emotionally textured.

Grades 3-5

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo’s tale of a mouse named Despereaux Tilling has garnered a great deal of well-deserved popularity and attention. Despereaux is no ordinary mouse; he can read and hear music and, most importantly, he can fall in love (with a Princess!). Despereaux’s big heart and unconventional courage make him a lasting and memorable hero.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

This Newbery Medal winning novel tells the story of Ivan, an artistic and creative gorilla who lives captive in a shopping mall. When Ivan meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, his life forever changes. The lessons Ruby teaches Ivan, and his transformative journey, will lead readers to think thoughtfully about human-animal relationships and the power of empathy and kindness. This is a perfect book for animal-loving readers.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This novel, told in verse, details the story of Hà and her move from Saigon to Alabama. Readers will learn about the real-life struggles of child refugees and their families. Lai’s words and narrative are beautiful, moving, and powerful.

Giants Beware! by Jorge Aguirre

This graphic novel centers around a lively protagonist named Claudette, who dreams of slaying a giant. The only problem is that there are no giants to be found near Claudette’s house- so she embarks on a journey to locate one. Readers will be drawn to the humor of Claudette’s adventures and the appealing graphic novel format.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown

This graphic novel is an especially good choice for fans of Star Wars, but all readers will enjoy the adventures of Roan, a middle schooler who is invited to attend Jedi Academy. Roan’s middle school trials and tribulations will feel familiar, but the backdrop of a “galaxy far, far away” make them remarkable and memorable.

Grades 6-8

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This award-winning novel will stay with readers long after they finish the last page. An homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic  A Wrinkle in Time, Stead’s book is an enduring read that has entered into the pantheon of the classics in its own right. The friendship at the core of the novel is profound and complex and plants the book firmly in a sensitive and realistic world that will be familiar to many readers (despite the elements of mystery and fantasy that anchor the larger plot).

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This beautiful book is written in verse and is a must-read for students and adults alike. Woodson’s memoir, presented through lyrical and poetic language, is powerful and moving, and addresses challenging and complex issues with clarity and sensitivity. Eloquent and deeply affecting.

Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers

We love reading Walter Dean Myers’ books year round, but this one is especially perfect for summertime reading. This novel takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, and significant historical figures such as Langston Hughes make appearances throughout the book.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

This is the first installment in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and its fast-paced fantastical tale makes for perfect summer reading. The Lightning Thief follows the story of Percy Jackson and his friends Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood as they embark on a mission to find Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt. On their adventures the friends encounter minotaurs, centaurs, and a host of Greek gods and goddesses. Readers will connect with the realistic characters (for example, Percy is dyslexic and struggles with ADHD) and action-packed plots while learning a little about Greek mythology.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This graphic novel, through its moving images and thought-provoking stories, brilliantly connects three very different characters and their struggles: the famous folktale of Sun Wukong, “The Monkey King”; Jin Wang, a boy who starts at a new school where he wants to fit in with his classmates; and Danny, a boy whose life is turned upside-down by the visit of his Chinese cousin, Chin-kee. This graphic novel gracefully examines a range of hardships and joys, including exclusion, racism, friendship, and first love.

Global World, Global Students

In today’s technological world, we can constantly connect with people from all over the globe. Students can collaborate often with their peers on the other side of the world. For that reason, it is more important than ever that we prepare our students to be informed, empathetic, and compassionate contributors to this global community. We can work towards this goal in a number of ways, some of which are outlined below.

Provide access to diverse books

We are excited to live in a time in which we can all advocate for a multitude of perspectives and varied experiences in the books we read. Movements like the We Need Diverse Books campaign are powerful because they are an example of how people’s voices are coming together to encourage access to a wide range of experiences in all our reading lives. We must transfer the momentum and energy of this discussion into our classrooms. Our classroom libraries should allow our students literary access to a diverse range of voices, perspectives, and cultures.

Our Inspiration Director, Pam Allyn, has partnered with our friends at Booksource to create book lists that support diverse voices in the K-2 grades. You can find them here.

Another helpful resource is this list of books from the New York Public Library.

Here is a small sampling of some of our all-time favorite titles that reflect a wide range of experiences and voices:

The Crossoverby Kwame Alexander

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

Dumping Soup, by Jama Kim Rattigan

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Use technology

Wonderful tools like Skype Classroom enable our students to interact with peers, writers, teachers, and friends around the world. Our partner organization, LitWorld, hosts World Read Aloud Day every March, and on this day, tools like Skype enable students to enjoy read alouds from authors and discuss books with students in other countries.

Online blogging platforms also make it possible for classrooms and students around the globe to share their writing and thinking with each other. Teachers can moderate and supervise these classroom blogs and allow their students to share what they are thinking with others. Students can also comment on the pieces of their peers and can reflect on the learnings and wonderings they develop during their reading experiences.

Give students space to share their own stories

One of the best ways for students to practice compassion and empathy is to actively listen to the stories of their classmates. As teachers, our most important job is to honor the experiences of each of our students and to promote the importance of individual storytelling. In her book Your Child’s Writing LifePam Allyn writes that, “Language brings us together. The details of our stories are different, but by sharing them we can find one another across any gulf of distance.”

In today’s global world, it is essential that our students recognize the power of language and of their own stories and that they develop compassion and respect as they listen to the stories of others. Ensure that all students feel comfortable to express themselves in your classroom, and devote specific time to sharing, talking, and reflecting. Host classroom celebrations of student writing frequently; allow time and space for student-to-student conversation; think actively and frequently about your classroom environment. Honor the narratives and experiences of each child, so that they will know to honor their own stories as well.

Let’s continue to share ideas and to advocate together for the voices of our students. Let’s work to ensure that all of our students see their experiences represented in the literature they read and that all of our students are exposed to unfamiliar experiences and voices in that literature as well. And let’s actively embrace all the gifts and resources of our global community.