Rigor and Complexity

We continue to discuss ELA and the depth of the standards.  Are we digging deep enough? Are we scaffolding too much?  What does ELA complexity and rigor look like?

Some people think rigor or complexity in a reading classroom is simply asking higher order questions, doing a close reading, and giving more difficult text but it is actually MORE than that!  You probably have heard in math that rigor is obtained through procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and real world application.  I think these same elements of rigor are needed in the ELA classroom in the following form:  strong standards, high level text, knowledge of the reader, authentic tasks, application of strategies and explicit instruction.

I have shared that the Common Core standards are already written in a scaffolding manner. (See this link to review this information:  Blog on Fiction Text Structure )   The standards address all domains of literacy including listening, speaking, reading and writing.  When teaching a concept it is important that students first hear the information, learn to speak the concept through language, read about it and then apply their learning through writing. This encourages students to think conceptually because you are moving them through the concrete to abstract developmentally.  In addition, to using these domains, the standards are building on one another to maximize higher order thinking and deepening of understanding by revisiting a text for different purposes. These standards are the “blueprint” for conceptual understanding.

Tip 1: If you are encouraging student to student interaction, you are deepening understanding of the topic and increasing the opportunity for students to build vocabulary and formulating ideas for written responses.

We think of text as being the most important element of rigor. If we want to challenge, we give more difficult text. Right?  Not exactly!  Text becomes complex and rigorous if you consider both quantitative (the mathematical reading level) and qualitative (quality of text and structure) measures.

See chart below.


Qualitative Quantitative
Looks within the text for the depth of the writing and complexity.

  • Figurative or Literal Language
  • Concise or Strongly Descriptive
  • Levels of Meaning or perspectives
  • Non-conventional text structure, narrator or writing style
  • Tier III vocabulary
  • Singular or multifaceted Plot
Measures the word frequency and length of sentences.

  • Lexile Level
  • Any mathematical reading level

You have to use both of these together to determine what will challenge your students. For example, Harry Potter and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day have similar lexile levels but clearly the depth of these texts are very different. There is actually a rubric (called a placemat) that can help you determine if your text is complex. You can find this document at North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in their ELA livebinder.  This placemat addresses how to ensure a text is complex by looking at various variables.

I like to use my “homemade” version for K-5 because it just seems more manageable to me.

Click here to Access:  Complexity Rubric


This “homemade” rubric helps you decide if the text is complex by examining different elements of the text (Qualitative and Quantitative) such as text structure, language, point of view, amount of background knowledge needed to understand text, vocabulary and the reading level.  Each element is given a point value to determine if the text is “above average.”

Tip #2:  Take into account the reading level AND the structure of the text when choosing a text for students. If the book has a lower reading level, than you will need to pull out the figurative language or multiple perspectives of two characters to make it more complex for your students. If you have a higher text, you may first look at basic 5W questions and then move into the higher concepts using the order of the standards.  It is important to always ensure students have basic understanding before digging deeper.

The reader and task is the next element you must consider in choosing complex text.  How proficient is the reader with multiple problems?  Can the reader distinguish figurative language from literal text?  Does the reader have sufficient background knowledge to pick up on subtle hints and inferences embedded in the text? When answering these questions, it helps you to decide where you need to scaffold and support readers with direct instruction and modeling.  Making sure the task is appropriate but not “too easy” is a challenge.

Tip #3:  Really think about what you are asking students to do with a text. What is the purpose of the task? The task should be real world or application of knowledge—not just simply regurgitating the story elements or sequence. These basic activities can be completed through annotation, reflections, class and peer discussions.  A task should be saved for applying knowledge or skills learned by the reader. Examples of great authentic tasks can be found at the following site by John Mueller:  http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/tasks.htm  Some pretty amazing ideas here.

The last elements are strategies and instruction which could take several blog posts to cover. So, the basics are that the instruction should be focused on the reader and allow the reader to discover rather than for the teacher to “teach it” or tell it to others.  Instruction should include higher order questioning that requires students to ground their answers in the text with evidence. This requires students to reread and discover new ideas within the same text. Strategies that help students learn are ones that scaffold learning but do not give answers. Think aloud, modeling, close reading, annotation and discussion—all require students to gain information but do the work themselves which is an important part of ensuring text complexity.

Tip #4:  Really think about the strategies you are using and if they are appropriate for the group of students you have. Consult this resource which I inerited many years ago (not sure of the original source) and modified it and digitized it over the years. The chart shows best practice strategies and their effectiveness for certain students.  Check it out here:  Instructional Strategies Matrix

As you can see, RIGOR and COMPLEXITY in reading is not an easy task. Rigor is attained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched appropriately with text and task to ensure they are stretching to their maximum with the proper scaffolds in place.  Procedural fluency in reading is when students can clearly apply the strategies as they read to fully comprehend the text. Real world application is matching task to text and ensuring that the task has relevancy and requires students to use their knowledge in new ways.  Teachers must really know the text,  reader and the standards because each element must work together.  A text is just a text—until you pair it with the correct standard, reader and task.


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