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A note on text difficulty in reading

Text difficulty or level is usually thought of as getting an appropriate balance between supports and challenges. Supports are the features of a text that make it easy to read, and challenges are the potential difficulties, for particular readers. It’s important to remember that supports and challenges exist only in relation to the reader: what one student finds a challenge, another may find a support. The difficulty level of a text depends on many factors, including:

  • the student’s prior knowledge of and interest in the content;
  • the number and nature of new ideas or concepts presented in the text;
  • the complexity of the text structure and the students’ prior knowledge of it;
  • the range and complexity of the vocabulary and other language features;
  • the syntax of the text and the complexity and length of the sentences;
  • the length and layout of the text, including the support given by illustrations and other visual features.

It’s also important to consider the task difficulty and the levels of meaning (in the text) that the reader is required to interact with.

Although some texts suggest a “readability level” on their cover or in accompanying notes, there is no single, set levelling sequence that determines the “readability” of a text. The teacher, who knows the learners and their needs and interests, makes the decisions based on assessment information. Suggested “readability levels” are only one kind of information that teachers can consider when choosing texts for their students.

The teacher will choose texts at different levels, for different purposes, within the approaches to reading (for example, when reading to the students, when sharing the text with students, when giving instruction during guided reading, or when providing texts for students’ independent or recreational reading).

Published on: 24 Feb 2009