Text Difficulty

By Irene Fountas

Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

What is the role of text difficulty in helping our students learn how to read?

Over many decades teachers have attended to the difficulty level of texts. You know well when a text is too hard for a student to process and the reader begins laborious sounding and guessing that can only result in a loss of attention to the meaning of a text.  You also know well what smooth, phrased reading sounds like when the student can process a text well independently.  And you also know when you have given the student a text that is not too difficult or not too easy, so the reader can learn how to do something better.  You know that the text supports your effective teaching and the student’s ability to learn.

Over decades, many have used a variety of mathematical formulas to assess the difficulty of a text. Clay (Clay, 1991) argued for the use of a text gradient as it can support or interfere with the reader’s ability to put together an effective system for processing texts.  Of course, she argued, any gradient must take into account the student’s unique experiences and language so all gradients are fallible.

A consideration of difficulty level is essential but different readability measures are based on different elements.

The Fountas and Pinnell Text Gradient™ A-Z was designed as a tool to support classroom teachers and teachers working with small groups to select texts for small group instruction. It is a complex gradient, as it takes into account ten different characteristics of text and goes far beyond mathematical formulas that are based on word and sentence length only.  They include:

  1. Genres/Forms- the type or kind of fiction or nonfiction text (e.g., biography, informational, historical fiction, folk tale, realistic fiction, fantasy). Also, the particular form (mystery, oral stories, picture book, graphic text, short story).
  2. Text Structure– the way the text is organized.
  3. Content– the subject matter of the text­– what it is about, the topic or ideas.
  4. Themes and Ideas– the big ideas in the text, the overall purpose, the messages.
  5. Language and Literary Features– the literary features (such as plot, characters, figurative language, literary devices such as flashbacks).
  6. Sentence Complexity– the structure of sentences includes the number of phrases and clauses.
  7. Vocabulary– the meaning of the words in the text
  8. Words– the length and complexity of the words (syllables, tense, etc.)
  9. Illustrations– the photographs or art in fiction texts; the graphic features of informational texts.
  10. Book and Print Features– the number of pages, print font, length, punctuation, and variety of readers’ tools (e.g., table of contents, glossary).

When the ten characteristics are used as a composite, the approximate level of a text can be determined.  And when the teacher begins with where the learner is, it can be productive and help the student climb the ladder of success.

The following chart shows the approximate goals for each grade level.  The arrows represent the goals, not the reality.  When you begin with where the student can learn, you can provide teaching that supports continued progress up the gradient.

We hope you will continue to engage in the analysis of texts to be sure to match texts to readers for one small part of the literacy instruction   you provide.  Of course, it will be important to also offer students daily opportunities to engage with complex texts geared to the grade and age level in interactive read aloud and book discussion groups.

We encourage you so share your experiences and comments on our blog.

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Fountas, I.C. and Pinnell, G.S. (2009). The Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Book List, K-8+. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

6 thoughts on “Text Difficulty

  1. Irene…thank you for this concise explanation. Our SPED Director was just asking for a 2 minute explanation of book levels. I forwarded her the blog post and encouraged her to subscribe. Thank you.

  2. You are very welcome. As you know, when classroom teachers and specialists share understandings and goals, there is coherence and power in the child’s learning.
    My best to you in your good work with teachers and children.

  3. I am currently training to be a Literacy Collaborative coach, and this is exactly what we were discussing in class on Thursday. This was a great tie in to our discussion. Thanks!

  4. Hi Irene,
    I was wondering the thinking behind not overlapping the reading levels between the different grade levels. This is a change from the previous chart. I do understand the higher end of grade level expectations. You spoke to this at our leadership conference.

    • The arrows show the range of levels expected at the grade level
      There will of course be overlap starting from where the child enters and exits
      We thought this format made the grade level spans clearer .
      My best
      Irene

  5. Thanks Irene- this concise explanation of text levels will be very helpful to teachers understanding that not all text gradients are created equal! The grade level expectations chart is helpful too- I’m noticing a few slight changes (increases) in end of year expectations. For instance, I thought level I was end of year for grade 1 but I see you have it as level J. This is clearer than the previous chart that had the crossover levels

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