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Text Complexity in Science - Resources for Teachers

Reading a text in science requires different skills and strategies than texts in other classes. Typical science texts use less familiar vocabulary. They also present ideas through multiple modalities (such as graphs, diagrams, lab write-ups, paragraphs), requiring students to synthesize a range of information. Teachers need to understand how complex a science text can be and implement appropriate strategies for supporting student comprehension. Students must be able to apply these science-specific literacy skills in order to read and interact with a text like a scientist does (disciplinary literacy).

In this video, Sid Larson, CESA 2 literacy consultant and Clinton literacy coach, discusses key concepts in text complexity in a science context. Below the video player you will find resources to support your use of the video and understand text complexity, including:

You can download the powerpoint slides here in .pptx format, or here as a pdf.  

Professional Learning Suggestions

Ideally, this video will be used as part of a collaborative learning experience within a professional learning community. We suggest that you stop the video and discuss (and/or personally reflect upon) the following questions in conjunction with the narrated Powerpoint slides. some questions are provided below with time markers for the beginning of the section relevant to that question. The full video is 30 minutes. Watching the video and discussing the following questions will likely take 1-2 hours. A PDF of this PLC guide and resources is here.

Before beginning the video, start with a group discussion: What do your students struggle with in reading science articles or textbooks?

  • (2:46) - Take a look at DPI’s text complexity rubric for informational texts - What do you observe? Discuss where your textbook and/or other science materials would rate on this rubric.
  • (3:00) - Look over the page on this slide. Is this a typical page? Would students have difficulties comprehending it?
  • (7:00) - If interested, go to and determine the lexile level of one of your science texts.  You will need to register to access this service. Does the lexile level match up with standards-based expectations at your grade level?
  • (10:50) - One of the common practices of a scientist is to support a claim with evidence. In this latitude example, the author’s claim isn’t entirely supported by the evidence. In one of your science texts, locate the claim being made. What evidence is provided for that claim? Thinking of your current unit, how do you have students substantiate claims with evidence?
  • (12:06) - Grammatical structures, such as dependent clauses that indicate cause and effect, can relate to bigger picture ideas in science. What graphic organizers do you use to support students in exploring cause/effect or compare/contrast?
  • (15:14) - What is the purpose for reading? Is it to answer the questions at the end of a section? Are your students reading like scientists? For example, are they reading or using a text to understand a phenomenon? Share and discuss an example of how that could look in practice.
  • (18:14-19:30) - Reflect - Do you work with the expectation condition, the dependence condition, or the bypass condition? Which one(s) and why? What strategies do you have to move past those methods?
  • (19:39) - Reflect on the idea of “expert blind spot,” meaning that when you have expertise in something, you’re sometimes blind to all of the steps it took you to get there and expect students to make leaps in understanding that aren’t reasonable. Have you seen that in your work? How can you “come out from behind the curtain” and show students how you have learned to do what you’re doing?
  • (22:32) - Look at the next piece of text (article, video, data, book, etc.) that students will be using and consider some ideas of close reading. What is the overarching purpose for having students engage with that text? Are they aware of that purpose? Could you model how you would interact with the text to address that purpose? How well does their highlighting or other interaction w/ the text support that purpose?  
  • (23:49) - How do you scaffold students in gathering evidence from text and other sources (e.g. experimental investigations) to support their scientific claims?
  • (26:04) - What might you do to make your classroom a more literacy-rich environment?

Top tips for addressing issues of text complexity in science instruction

  1. Establish a clear purpose for student’s reading that moves beyond just learning about a topic. Perhaps it is to build up evidence for a claim or to revise a model. It could be doing background research for an experiment, to understand what variables are relevant. Or, it could be building ideas for a design or process to solve a problem. Connect your lesson to these types of reasons for why a scientist or an engineer would be doing the reading. 
  2. Ensure it is critical for students to do the reading. Are they going to get the information in other ways anyway? 
  3. Have students work with vocabulary in meaningful ways. They must use them as they do science (such as ask questions, model phenomena, design experiments, and argue with evidence). Note: a separate set of resources on vocabulary is in the works. 
  4. Have students read like a scientist or engineer - check the abstract to see if the article is relevant, review charts and graphics that describe the key findings, relate it to their work, etc. 
  5. Support students in understanding “tier 2” scientific vocabulary, such as evidence, analyze, explanation, prediction, infer, and environment. These academic words have unique applications for science, but differ from “tier 3” science-specific vocabulary, such as endosperm, magma, and ion. 
  6. Have a classroom that’s full of text options for students for use as needed - scientific journals, trade-books, online resources, fun science books, listening stations, etc.

Further resources

Webinars and further online modules:




  • - finding lexile scores of textbooks, books, passages