Using Qualitative Features to Help Plan Instruction

Question 1: It makes a lot of sense to me that analyzing the qualitative features that make a text complex will help me plan my instruction. But how exactly can I use these features to set clear instructional goals?


The qualitative features closely align to particular reading and language standards. By matching qualitative features to the standards, educators can set instructional goals. Additionally, knowing which qualitative features/standards will be emphasized through instruction will help determine text selections that favor opportunities to engage in text with particular qualitative features. Recognizing the rigor or cognitive demand of tasks and how this aligns with the standards is another source of information that supports setting clear instructional goals.

If I want to focus on text structure, then I can . . .

  • Explore the images, illustrations, and other graphic features in the text to understand how the author supports development of ideas within the text (i.e., RI.7: drawing information from visual representation).
  • Utilize mentor texts and reference standards in writing (e.g., cross reference analysis of craft and structure in reading with writing standard #1 which describes grade level qualities of writing arguments).

If I want to focus on language, then I can . . .

  • Match the language features to the language standards.
  • Engage close reading at the sentence level to develop fluency with syntax.

If I want to focus on meaning or purpose of a text, then I can . . .

  • Explore point of view in a text (perhaps advancing to identifying evidence of bias) through collaborative conversation.
  • Examine how a theme or a central idea is developed across the text.

If I want to focus on the knowledge demands of a text, then I can . . .

  • Select texts with experiences or subject matter that may be unfamiliar to students and work through ways they can build knowledge.
  • Examine connections between the text being read and other sources of information (texts, theories, etc.) that will help build understanding.


  • Achieve the Core: Achieve the Core's Text Complexity Collection provides a lesson planning guide for teaching complex texts.
  • Karin Hess's Toolkit: The "Tools for Examining Text Complexity" document lists the criteria for determining text complexity and the factors that may affect relative difficulty of texts.
  • Karin Hess's PowerPoint on Cognitive Demand: Hess's PowerPoint covers rigor and relevance related to the Common Core. She provides an example of Webb's depth of knowledge using Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Tim Shanahan's Presentation on Close Reading: This presentation is titled "Meeting the Challenge of Common Core: Planning for Close Reading."  Shanahan describes close reading in connection to the Common Core State Standards. He explains the process and provides examples of close reading including before, during, and after phases.

Question 2: I'm struggling to identify what element(s) of a complex text my students are having the most difficulty tackling. Are there any resources that might help me diagnose which qualitative features they are struggling with (structure, language, meaning/purpose, and knowledge demands)?


Just asking students to identify the parts of the text that are difficult for them to understand may provide you with a window into the qualitative features of the text that are challenging. Study those parts to analyze why they might be causing difficulty. The following questions may help you identify the specific elements of difficulty:

  • Have students identified challenging vocabulary?
  • Have they indicated places where the author uses figurative language?
  • Do they note text structures that cause confusion?
  • Are they marking sections of text that would require some level of background knowledge?

Formative assessments, such as asking students to share their thinking about the difficult parts or to mark the confusing or challenging places in the text, can offer insight. Pay attention to the types of text-dependent questions you are asking and how students respond. Do their responses indicate misunderstanding or confusion with particular qualitative features?


  • Achieve the Core: Achieve the Core's Text Complexity Collection provides a section titled "Lesson Planning from Text Complexity" that offers support for understanding the features of text that lead to complexity.