This article is second in a series exploring how to approach close reading. If you’d like, go back and read the first article in the series, “Diving In to Close Reading.”

Getting into the Zone

We all know the story of Goldilocks—she had to test out several chairs, beds, and bowls of porridge to find the ones that were “just right” for her. Your process for finding “just right” texts to read closely with your students may feel much the same—you will probably look through various articles, stories, chapter books, and poems before finding the ones that will offer the right amount of challenge for your students. What do you need to know and consider to get into the Goldilocks Zone of text complexity?

The term text complexity refers to the level of challenge that a particular text presents. Text complexity includes factors we can measure objectively, such as sentence length, and factors that are more subjective in nature, such as text structure and knowledge demands. Another important piece of text complexity is one that is often overlooked: the reader/task.

Here are some elements to consider when deciding whether or not a text will get you into the Goldilocks Zone:

Quantitative (Measurable) Considerations

Knowing the Lexile range, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula, or other readability measure for your grade level is a helpful starting point, but these measures alone won’t give you the whole picture of a text’s complexity. For instance, the Lexile level of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is 680L, which falls within a 4th–5th grade band. Why? The language is relatively simple. However, because the book deals with complex, adult themes, most 4th and 5th grade teachers wouldn’t read it with their students. A computer formula cannot analyze the “soul” of a book.

Qualitative (Non-Measurable) Considerations

Qualitative factors require a little more effort. Analyzing and evaluating texts based on text structure, language, author’s purpose, and knowledge demands will help you get into the Goldilocks Zone.

Text Structure —

  • Stories with linear plots are easier for students to follow. Students will need more support when reading stories that include flashbacks or flash forwards.
  • Poems with a narrative form may be easier for students to understand. Lyrical poems that describe the speaker’s thoughts and feelings are often more challenging to interpret.
  • With informational texts, certain structures better support the purpose of your instruction. For example, if you want students to understand photosynthesis, a text that outlines the process using a sequential structure may be appropriate.
  • Pictures, photographs, charts, maps, and other visual features in texts can help or hinder students’ understanding. If a graphic is not directly related to the text that appears in close proximity, it may present comprehension challenges.

Language — Stories with a lot of figurative language, such as similes, metaphors, and idioms, can be fun to read and are great teaching tools, but figurative language is more difficult for students to interpret. This tends to be true for students who are English Language Learners.

Author’s Purpose — Sometimes authors directly tell readers why they have written a particular text, but often they do not. Consider the clues your students will need to locate and use to determine the author’s purpose.

Knowledge Demands ­— Some texts require more background knowledge than others to understand. For instance, when reading Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, some information on life during the Great Depression is needed to help students understand the historical context and allusions. Consider if you have time to develop the needed background knowledge, and/or if the topic fits in with other subjects your class is studying.

Qualitative Scoring Rubrics

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in coming up with your own rubric. Here are several fantastic resources to help you evaluate texts, courtesy of ASCD and CCSSO.

  1. Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity Rubric
  2. Qualitative Scoring Rubric for Narrative Text/Literature
  3. Text Complexity: Qualitative Measures Rubric (Informational Text)

Reader/Task Considerations

Now, shift your focus from texts to your students. Think about their readiness—reading ability, background knowledge, and interests—when selecting texts to get into the Goldilocks Zone.

  • What are my students currently prepared to do with this text?
  • Will my students find this text engaging?
  • What scaffolds/supports will they need to comprehend and analyze this text? Will I be able to provide the level of support this text requires in complementary cross-curricular lessons?
  • What else can my students do with this text that will address grade level standards and that will push them to think critically?

Finding “just right” texts for your students might seem complicated, but applying these quantitative, qualitative, and reader/task considerations will get you into the Goldilocks Zone.


More on Close Reading

This article is second in a series on close reading. Learn more about how to plan close reading lessons for your classroom by digging into the series:

  1. Diving In to Close Reading
  2. How to Find “Goldilocks” Texts for Close Reading Lessons
  3. How to Design Questions for Deep Understanding in Close Reading
  4. Act I of Close Reading: What the Text Says
  5. Act II of Close Reading: How the Text Works
  6. Act III of Close Reading: What the Text Means
  7. 15 Interventions for Close Reading Lessons