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What Kind of “Complex Text”?

My “To Read” Shelf

Saturday morning, I read a book cover to cover. I laughed, I pondered, I underlined, I got ideas for my own writing, I…loved every word of it.

It was a book on mathematics.


Now, honestly, have you run across a mathematics textbook that would glue you to your chair on a Saturday morning? Or a science textbook? Or history? Or is your experience much like mine—finding that the texts are boring or outdated or, worse, irrelevant to the real work of the discipline.

A history teacher told me, “I never assign more than five pages of reading because the students get too bogged down. It’s too complex. Oh, and 10/20 on a quiz is a C because the information is so difficult.” I took a good look at the book. Folks, it was an encyclopedia of names and dates, not “complex text” that explored the fascinating ideas and motivations that drive history. The ideas he was testing weren’t difficult, either—they just required hours of memorization. I will say that the publisher had added lots of pictures of torture and brothels, I assume in an attempt to keep students turning the pages.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize complex text:

Part of the motivation behind the interdisciplinary approach to literacy promulgated by the Standards is extensive research establishing the need for college and career ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently in a variety of content areas. Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K–12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.

The “complex texts” I read in college were rich, like the math book that swept me away last Saturday. What if our high schooler’s first introduction to the universe was a chapter–or more–from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? What if a U.S. History course began with a chapter from Takaki’s A Distant Mirror? What if we looked for the very best texts we could find instead of settling for prepackaged curriculum?

My real question: Are we planning on teaching our students to read textbooks that are really dictionaries and encyclopedias? Or are we going to introduce them to wonderful, yet complex texts within our fields that real practitioners read or that convey marvelous information in interesting ways?

With all of possibilities available with online primary texts, and the low prices on e-books, and the speed with which new information becomes available, let’s make sure our students get great texts as they learn to unlock complexities.

What texts should we be using? List your favorite nonfiction in a comment.


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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jane, you are so completely correct. The more fully integrated the school-day learning is – with history, spelling, science and math lessons all focused on, say, the Ohlone tribe that once lived in Northern California – the more my daughter enjoys and remembers what she has learned. She can write a Native American style myth (“Where dreams come from”), and incorporate many of the lessons she’s learned. She can tell us how to estimate the building materials needed to construct the typical home for these tribes, and about what they ate, how they divided labor in the tribe and family, and their knowledge of astronomy.

    Now if only the ‘textbooks’ would catch up with how her wonderful teachers manage their curriculum!

    I love your writing and thinking – Jane for Secretary of Education!

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