Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century. Gary L. Williamson (2006) found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Although legitimate questions can be raised about the tools used to measure text complexity (e.g., Mesmer, 2008), what is relevant in these numbers is the general, steady decline—over time, across grades, and substantiated by several sources—in the difficulty and likely also the sophistication of content of the texts students have been asked to read in school since 1962.
Current trends suggest that if students cannot read challenging texts with understanding—if they have not developed the skill, concentration, and stamina to read such texts—they will read less in general. As Adams (2009) puts it, “There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest. To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.
Measuring Text Complexity: Three Factors
Qualitative evaluation of the text: Levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands
Quantitative evaluation of the text: Readability measures and other scores of text complexity
Matching reader to text and task: Reader variables (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and task variables (such as purpose and the complexity generated by the task assigned and the questions posed).