The Lexile and the Literature

This last week or so, it hit the attention of the blogosphere that schools are going to be using the lexile scores of books to match students up with literature that should be taught to them. Then someone realized that the Grapes of Wrath had a lower score than Hunger Games, and the outrage was heard.

So what is the Lexile? According to the official website, “The idea behind The Lexile Framework for Reading is simple: if we know how well a student can read and how hard a specific book is to comprehend, we can predict how well that student will likely understand the book.” So it’s a tool to help match individual readers with books that meet them on their level? hold, on, not so fast… The Grapes of Wrath is not a book a younger child than could enjoy Hunger Games is likely to comprehend, and it has nothing to do with the language, but the concepts laid out in the book. When I tried to figure out exactly what is used to give a book it’s score, the description becomes coy, no doubt intended to protect the system used. “Generally, longer sentences and words of lower frequency lead to higher Lexile ® measures; shorter sentences and words of higher frequency lead to lower Lexile ® measures. Texts such as lists, recipes, poetry and song lyrics are not analyzed because they lack conventional punctuation.”

They go on to say that they use text chunks of about 1000 words to determine the scores, which doesn’t reassure me at all. In any given novel there are things like dialogue and exposition that may alter the score from place to place. For instance, Vulcan’s Kittens scores an 800L with a 620 word snippet from a mythological-being heavy bit of text, and a 720L from the part where Linn is fleeing in terror, certain two of her kittens have been killed in an explosion. That particular scene had my daughter comign to me in near-tears, asking if the kittens were ok. I spoilered the story for her and assured her that although not yet written, they were fine.

The process of getting those scores for my book was interesting.  It took me a while, and biting the bullet to register with the site (which does not offer an “author” role, so I chose to call myself a reseacher for the purposes of what I was doing) to get those results. Books that score low on the scale include Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the afore-mentioned Grapes of Wrath, and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Recommended reading level for lexile scores results below 820? Third Grade. So a fourth grader would be denied the pleasure of reading Charlotte’s Web (680L), and if for some reason they wanted to read my book Vulcan’s Kittens, it would also be off limits, although I wrote it for a sixth-grader. Blaine Greetemen, in the article I linked above, ends with musing “It’s this kind of thinking that makes us “humans” rather than mere “machines.” At least, as I pass his house on the way back home, I think that this is what Vonnegut would have said, although he ironically lets an alien voice the sentiment inSlaughterhouse Five: “What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

To determine what the student should be reading, test results are interpreted to give a lexile level, but not a score, no matter what everyone else on the internet calls it, because a score is a bad word, evidently. Scholastic makes this clear:  It is important to note it is never called a score! This encourages student achievement. ” Students don’t get this, sadly, and they will judge themselves on how high or low their ‘score’ is. I know this from my own kids. I came across an odd, poignant blog poem while researching for this article, Lamentations from the Lex-Aisle, that sums it up pretty well. Kids want to read what they want to read, not what they are required to read. Letting them loose, giving them a little nudge with books tailored to their tastes but perhaps challenging… this is the way to grow a life-long reader, not numbers and tests and (oh horrors!) scores.

17 thoughts on “The Lexile and the Literature

  1. From what I’ve seen with my own kids, desire trumped all. If they were interested they’d read it, even when a lot of the language was over their heads. But that’s how you acquire a more sophisticated understanding of the language.

    1. Yes it is! That poem struck me, too, because the little boy really wants to read about mummies and cool stuff, but he’s being mocked by not reading at the level his classmates are. And I can so see that happening to a little boy in a class full of girls. Boys just don’t ‘get’ reading as quickly as girls, but they are stuffed into a one-size-fits-all box.

      1. Oh, the poem got me ’cause it describes a nephew who loved his zombie book but doesn’t read much.
        I’m afraid I broke one of those rules about how you are supposed to support what the teachers say with my own boys. I assured them that the school assigned the c–p it did to them to get them to stop liking to read. Since that was obviously true, they continued to read Harry Potter, dragon books, and all the fantasy they could get their hands on.

          1. At nearly 50 I think I’m finally over the aversion school gave me for any book suggested as “good for you.” Or maybe not. I just remembered that when I first heard of the Hunger Games it was in the context of the books having gotten some scholastic literary awards and it cut any curiosity I may have had about them cold.

  2. I was very blessed to be home schooled, which means my siblings and I have everything from the Hunger Games to Shakespeare to any and every fantasy book we can get our hands on…and the only criterion is “Is it appropriate (language, sex) for the child?”
    I don’t read literary novels for the sake of “literary”; I pick them up because they interest me. (Sorry, my big brother, Hemingway is DULL.)

    1. I, too, was homeschooled up until highschool, and then was in such a small school that I might as well have been homeschooled. I read everything, and I do mean that. My mother only ever told me (I think I was perhaps 14) that I could not read two authors. One I did, and the other I didn’t until adulthood, and then said “ew” at her. I encourage my kids to read what they like, and every now and then send them a book that is perhaps a challenging read, but as it is about (mythology, dragons, what have you) I know they will tackle it. And grow in doing so.

  3. Sentence length, word frequency. But not maturity level of subjects? Concepts? I’d say something like “Words fail me,” but it was all too predictable.

    I trust there’s a wide selection so the kids can at least choose something of interest to themselves.

  4. My daughter’s middle school had some sort of system for taking books out of the library that limited the kids choices. I didn’t worry about it too much, probably because my “slow reader” never had to face it. I agree that it’s a problem, though. And (from the poem) the problem is surpassed by any requirement that the students (or library patrons) read all the way to the end. Kids should be free to try things too hard for them, and reading a third of a harder book is certainly equivalent to reading all of a much easier book. And reading picture books even when you can read a chapter book and reading a chapter book when you can easily read Harry Potter? If the information is interesting or the story fun… it’s all good.

    What I DO take this as proof of, though, is that when librarians wish to do so, they most certainly can categorize and sort books by content and most certainly can indicate which ones have sex or rapes in them.

    (My somewhat OCD youngest was supposed to read Steinbeck over the summer, at least I think it was Steinbeck. In any case, the wail of anguish, “AAAHhhhh, punctuation! AaaAAAhHHHhh!!!!!” Well, it was genuine.)

  5. I am a teacher. Lexile is a tool, just like a drill is a tool. If you have a student who is reading at a 7th grade level but is in 10th grade, lexile can help correct that deficit by carefully planning what minimum level of book to allow. You never, ever give a “just only” book to a student. Instead, bear in mind that at theendof 7th grade your student needsto bereadingin 8 th b r adereadinglevel books period .

    1. And if they don’t, how is that solved by disallowing books below their level? I guarantee you that what they learn is to hate the concept and will read nothing they aren’t forced to read, possibly for the rest of their lives.

      I’m not saying that it doesn’t sound like a good idea, but lots of things sound like a good idea.

      Yes, I know, I was reading past 12 grade level when they tested us in 4th grade, but I have kids who where late readers in homes-school who went from not reading at all to reading college level in three years. I also have one who read slowly and always did and was reading chapter books into high school ages… but even she *likes* to read for pleasure and is writing her own story about characters she’s made up.

      What I noticed with my kids though is that not pushing *reading* meant that they were 100% on *comprehension*. Because apparently learning to recognize the words on the page (phonetically or otherwise) and read them off doesn’t actually involve, in any way, paying attention to those words as complete thoughts. Sort of like how a typist can type an entire page of dictation without ever “reading” a single word of it. I used to have to check that decrypted messages came out of the machine with all information intact without “reading” them. (I had the clearance, but not the need-to-know.) Amazingly, it can be done, just like a 3rd grader can read an entire passage aloud without ever converting a single one of those words to meaning.

    2. The problem is that the Lexile tool will be misused and overused. Some “educator” or administrator will decide that students in X grade need to read Y number of books with the appropriate Lexile score and nothing else. So teachers will be told that they must show that their classes are reading at least [number] of Lexile-correct books. That will, in some cases, become the only metric for a successful reading program, because it is quantitative and thus easy to measure and to display in annual reports. The quality and content of the books, and the maturity of the themes, will be secondary considerations at best. Will this happen everywhere? Of course not, and there will be teachers who find work-arounds, but the temptation for the quantifiers and administrators is too strong for the scoring system not to be misused.

  6. I’m reminded of people who study the New Testament in Greek. They always go for the Gospel of John – not that big of a vocabulary, written almost exclusively in present tense (Greek tenses, even in Koine, are hard for most English speakers).

    Then they hit the *concepts*. “In the beginning was the Word…” and suddenly it’s not so easy and simple as mere vocabulary and verb tense would make it appear.

    Do they test kids in math, and never give them problems they can’t already do? How do they learn, if that’s the case?

    This makes me very, very sad.

    1. This is an excellent example and related to that long thing I just wrote pointing out the difference between reading and comprehension. Missing a lot of the words, or reading something with simple language, is a different species of activity than reading to obtain information or to enjoy a story.

      When you’re reading for information, the parts of a book beyond your level can usually be figured from context, and if a book has the information that interests you, it can’t possibly matter that it’s written below your level.

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