Finding and Teaching the Complexity in Read-Aloud Texts

July 22, 2020
Anne Lyneis

Have you ever been in the middle of a read-aloud lesson, stopped to ask your students a comprehension question, and found 25 blank faces staring back at you? This is a common occurrence in many elementary school classrooms, especially when reading complex texts aloud to students.

Knowing that, come the first day of school, your students may not have been engaging with texts for the entire summer, your initial inclination may be to read easier books, simplifying the text for students. But students can and should be engaging with complex texts at the beginning of the school year. 

To avoid a classroom full of blank stares, it’s important to anticipate what makes a text complex and prepare additional scaffolds and supports to ensure that students are able to access the text and build a deeper meaning. These supports will be especially important to aid students in re-engaging with learning after the disruption of the past several months.

What Makes a Text Complex?

As you consider an upcoming unit, you should first read the text through the lens of what makes the text complex at the holistic level. Then you should reread with an eye for what makes particular sections of the text—particularly sections connected to key questions—complex. We recommend using Achieve the Core’s text complexity rubric which breaks text complexity down into four main buckets: meaning, language, knowledge demands, and structure.

Let’s look at the text Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China from our 2nd Grade Cinderella Stories unit to explore how to articulate different aspects of complexity.

At this point in the unit, students have read a few different versions of Cinderella, so students may be able to notice key characteristics of a Cinderella story without closely analyzing the text. But whenever you read a text aloud to students, you should be pushing deeper, beyond the surface-level understanding. To facilitate this type of understanding, you will need to have a clear understanding of the complexities and nuances of the text. And you will need to be able to anticipate student gaps in understanding.

Start by thinking about which elements of complexity are present and which aren’t. The narrative structure of the text is straightforward and follows the chronological order of other Cinderella stories, and therefore will not present an additional barrier for most students. The central message, or meaning, is also similar to other stories from the unit, and can be inferred without a deep understanding of the text.

So what makes this text complex? One of the main features of complexity is the knowledge demands in the text. Yeh-Shen takes place in Ancient China, and one of the major events in the text is a festival. The New Year Celebration is an important holiday that brings families together, and was a place where young people could meet with the possibility of finding a spouse. At that point in time, marriages were often arranged, so it was not uncommon for families to attend a festival with hopes of arranging a marriage. But, marriages mainly happened within the same class, so it was very uncommon for the king to be interested in a poor, servant girl.

Another reason why the text is complex is the role of the illustrations in the text. The setting of the text is integral for developing characters, plot and mood. In order to fully understand the story, students need to closely “read” what is happening in the illustrations. One of the key questions of the lesson is, “Explain the significance of the illustrations. How do they help the reader better understand the story?” This key question is specifically designed to bring students’ attention to the complexity of the illustrations.

It can take practice to confidently identify the different features of text complexity. Understanding the potential purposes of illustrations can help you consider what to look for in a text.

Planning Student Supports

As you prepare to teach a unit, the time you spend with the texts will be most fruitful if you note along the way which elements of complexity appear where, and begin to strategize for how you will build the necessary scaffolds to support your students. We also recommend analyzing the Key Questions and Target Tasks of each lesson to determine how they might be challenging for your students, and adding your own supports.

Within the Fishtank ELA curriculum, we provide guidance on how to address the key features of text complexity in our Enhanced Lesson Plans, available with a Fishtank Plus subscription.

To support the knowledge demands for holistic understanding of Yeh-Shen, the Enhanced Lesson Plan suggests:

Enhanced Lesson Plan - Building Knowledge and Skills - 5 minutes - Say, “Today we will read a Cinderella story from China. China is a country in Asia (show on the world map). This story doesn’t take place in China today, however. It is set in ancient China, hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”   Explain that in China, they did and still do celebrate many festivals with food, dancing, and music. The festival mentioned in the book is the New Year celebration (also known as the Spring festival). This important holiday brought families together, and was a place where young people could meet with the possibility of finding a spouse. Also, in China the fish is a sign of wealth and prosperity. Fish were very important, especially in Chinese stories.

This guidance will help you introduce key content knowledge before reading the text.

Addressing the complexity of the text holistically, however, isn’t enough. Different sections of the text may have additional features of complexity. You may stop to ask a key question, and a particular knowledge, language, or structure demand may make that question particularly challenging. 

If we look more closely at Yeh-Shen, we find a wealth of opportunities to dive deeper into the complexity of the text.

At last she could return both little shoes to the fish bones. Surely then her beloved spirit would speak to her again. 

Now the king’s first thought, on seeing Yeh-Shen take the precious slipper, was to throw the girl into prison as a thief. But when she turned to leave, he caught a glimpse of her face. At once the king was struck by the sweet harmony of her features, which seemed so out of keeping with the rags she wore. It was then that he took a closer look and noticed that she walked upon the tiniest feet he had ever seen. 

With a wave of his hand, the king signaled that this tattered creature was to be allowed to depart with the golden slipper. Quietly, the king’s men slipped off and followed her home.

After reading this page, students are prompted with the following key question: “How does the King respond when he sees Yeh-Shen? Why?”

It would be easy for students to just say, “The king sends his men away.” While this is true, it misses the heart of what is really happening. This section is actually quite complex, and students might need additional scaffolds to answer the question fully.

  • Knowledge Demands
    To understand why the king initially thinks that the girl should be thrown in prison as a thief, students need to understand what type of people attend the festival, and why she wouldn’t have attended the festival. Students might miss this judgement. If they do, you may prompt them: How does the king feel when he first sees Yeh-Shen? Why does he feel this way?
  • Language Supports
    In this section of text, the author uses a lot of specific vocabulary to describe Yeh-Shen, the way the king feels, and his actions. To truly understand the king's response, students need to understand what the specific description means. You may prompt with the following questions: 
    • What does the author mean by “the sweet harmony of her features”? 
    • What does the author mean by “seemed so out of keeping with the rags she wore”? What is the author trying to say with this description? 
    • Why does the author include the word tattered? What is the author trying to emphasize about Yeh-Shen?
  • Structure Supports
    It would also be easy to ignore the illustrations on this page, but in fact the illustrations add another layer of detail. In the illustration you can see the king pushing away his men with his hands, but in the background you also see the shadow of the fish. The author purposefully included this detail. You may prompt students: What do you notice about the illustration on page 22? How does this add to our understanding of the king’s actions?

With these scaffolds, students should be able to produce a more nuanced answer such as, “The king originally judged Yeh-Shen based on the way that she looked, but when he looked closer he was drawn into her beauty. The spirits of the magic fish were guiding the king to Yeh-Shen.” 

These kinds of supports and scaffolds are provided throughout our Enhanced Lesson Plans, which are currently available with Fishtank Plus for our Kindergarten–5th grade ELA course.


With the right preparation, all students can and should have access to complex texts as they return to learning this fall. Explore our ELA curriculum to find more helpful guidance.


Anne Lyneis is the Managing Director of ELA Curriculum and the author of the Literature and Science and Social Studies curriculum for grades K-5. She began her career in education through Teach for America South Louisiana where she fell in love with teaching. She taught elementary school for 8 years in both public and charter schools in Louisiana, Texas, and Massachusetts before joining the Fishtank team. She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Master’s degree in school leadership from Louisiana State University.



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