Text complexity in the early grades: Shooting ourselves in the foot?

Cozy reading spot

Here are some quotes from the most recent issue of Educational Researcher regarding text complexity in the early grades, one of the hallmark pushes of the Common Core State Standards:

the CCSS text complexity standards for Grade 3 appear to be aspirational, much like the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress targets (Shepard, 2008). The small set of studies that have examined text complexity over time does not show that text complexity at Grade 3 has deteriorated. Neither is there evidence that the accelerated targets in the primary grades are necessary for high school graduates to read the texts of college and careers. (p. 47)


Another potential indirect effect on students may be their motivation and engagement. The engagement of reading among American students is already low, as indicated by a 2001 nationally representative sample of fourth graders from 35 countries that ranked the United States 33rd in an index of students’ motivations for reading (Mullis, Martin, Gonzalez, & Kennedy, 2003) and 35th out of 35 countries in the revised index of attitudes toward reading (Twist, Gnaldi, Schagen, & Morrison, 2004). At present, there is research indicating that motivation decreases when tasks become too challenging and none that indicates that increasing challenge (and potential levels of failure) earlier in students’ careers will change this dismal national pattern of disengagement with literacy (Guthrie, Wigfield, & You, 2012). (p. 48)


Will the intended outcomes of higher levels of literacy for all students be realized by setting the bar arbitrarily at third grade? Our review suggests that the unintended negative consequences could well outweigh the intended positive outcomes. (p. 49)


Increasing the pressure on the primary grades – without careful work that indicates why the necessary levels are not attained by many more students – may have consequences that could widen a gap that is already too large for the students who, at present, are left out of many careers and higher education. How sadly ironic it would be if an effort intended to support these very students limited their readiness for college and careers. (p. 49)

Hiebert, E. H., & Mesmer, H. A. E. (2013). Upping the ante of text complexity in the Common Core State Standards: Examining its potential impact on young readers. Educational Researcher, 42(1), 44-51.

Image credit: “Cozy” reading spot

2 Responses to “Text complexity in the early grades: Shooting ourselves in the foot?”

  1. And we are also creating Science standards and assessments for K-2! I don’t think that our current failure to test 6 and 7 year-olds for their science knowledge is a major problem.

  2. Interesting post on Dangerously Irrelevant. I do not disagree with the author of the writing below as it would be ashamed if text complexity actually has the negative affects. The problem is looking at text complexity only as increasing the difficulty of text we are offering our students. The intent of the Common Core with Text Complexity is NOT to just put more difficult text in the face of students, but instead it is to give students the practice and confidence in how to figure out difficult passages of text and eventually more difficult text. It is not to take the place of pleasure reading and the amount of time that students have eyes on text. It is meant to just scaffold. It is also meant to help teachers put different types of genre in front of all students and ask students questions that require students to provide evidence from the text when providing an answer. Too often the questions we ask, students can answer without ever actually reading the text.

    Loved the post- as it challenges our “status quo”. The author brings up good points that we all need to be aware of and caution against just throwing more difficult text in front of students.

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