Why I wrote this book…because I was frustrated…

unpacking complexity

Is anybody overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out a text’s complexity??? In our field, there’s a lot of talk going on about this and a lot of terms flying around like levels of meaning/reasoning/density, structure, language conventionality, vocabulary, knowledge demands and so forth. There are also a slew of rubrics out there that attempt to help us with this task. For me, it’s all a little daunting because there’s so much and it’s thrown at us all at once. That’s why I decided to write Unpacking Complexity in Informational Texts: Principles and Practices for Grades 2-8 (2015).

Writing this turned into a professional journey for me. When I sat down to write this book–on a topic my editor suggested, I quickly became overwhelmed by it all. So I just started by asking myself, What does the term “text complexity” even mean? Here’s the first two paragraphs of Chapter One (p. 7)-

What makes an informational text complex? According to Merriam-Webster.com (n.d.), the word complex is defined as “composed of two or more parts” (adjective) or “a whole made up of complicated interrelated parts” (noun). In the same source, the word part is defined as the following:

(1) one of the often indefinite or unequal subdivisions into which something is or is regarded as divided and which together constitute the whole; (2) an essential portion or integral element.

If we think about how these definitions apply to informational texts, then we might define text complexity as the following:

The quality of being composed of complicated or interrelated parts (one of which is the reader) that, although indefinite or unequal, are each an essential element of the whole text.

For the rest of the book, I begin a systematic look at these “complicated or interrelated” parts and what makes each of these parts complex for students as readers –

  • author’s purpose (I make the case that this drives all the other parts)
  • text’s structure (oh, boy—and it’s so much harder than just the traditional five- compare/contrast, cause/effect, sequence, etc!!!!)
  • types of details used in non-narrative texts (like location, explanation, function, real-life examples and so forth)
  • types of details used in narrative texts (like agent, agent’s disposition, use of quote to support and so forth) (oh, and don’t forget that many texts are a blend of narrative and non-narrative!!!!)
  • connective language (words like because and although and how they contribute to meaning but are often overlooked by student readers!!!!)
  • how main ideas are constructed (not just what are main ideas…but how do the author and the reader, as partners, construct main ideas…)

And so much more. My goal was to unpack all of the language flying around about text complexity and lay this information out in a way that creates a manageable picture of what makes a text complex. “First let’s look at this…then this…next this…and this is how it all comes together.” In include lots and lots of excerpts and examples from informational texts that you might have in your classroom.

I also include lesson ideas and samples of student work…because I couldn’t write about something and not do it with kids and see the results 🙂

Okay…just a few thoughts. You can read most of the intro and part of chapter one at Amazon or you can read Chapter 2 “What makes an informational text complex?” at Guilford Press’s site. You can also get 20% with Code 2E at Guilford’s site as well.

If you pick up this book, I’d love to hear your feedback. I continue to ponder and grow in my thinking about all of this and would treasure the conversation!



One thought on “Why I wrote this book…because I was frustrated…

  1. Janice Bullard

    I read your first book and found it really helpful, so I was excited to order your second book and read it over Christmas break. By taking the time to ‘unpack’ informational text and explaining what you learned, you’ve helped me look at text with different lenses that I know will influence how I approach informational text and how I will try to make it accessible to my students. You are so right when you say there is so much more to structure than the 5 kinds we typically teach in 4th grade!

    Tomorrow, to prepare for engineering their own earthquake resistant structures, my students will read a passage from a National Geographic book that describes a kind of structure that was developed by an engineer in Japan. To help them understand it, I plan on reading one of the paragraphs sentence by sentence so that the kids will see the text structure underlying the author’s explanation. I feel more prepared to do this after reading your book!

    Also- I am adding another essential question to our learning for the next few weeks: How can finding structure help me understand?

    Thanks for doing the background work and sharing- it will be such a great reference for me!


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