Because if it was up to me, I’d be done with using Lexiles.
As a middle school teacher for gifted students, I find myself constantly being “encouraged” to use Lexile reading levels. Whether it is through professional development, state tests, administration, or even parents, I am asked about the reading level of my texts.
My first year I did pay strict attention to it. I chose novels based on Lexile, not content. I only allowed students to complete Quarterly Reading assignment for books in their Lexile range.
I still cringe when I remember shooting down a student’s request to use use John Steinback’s Of Mice and Men for her quarterly reading, even though it only had a 630 Lexile. “Sorry,” I told her. “But you really need to be looking for books at a higher level.”
Like any first-year teacher who had chosen district initiative and data over students’ best interests, I smacked down book requests one after another while encouraging my students to “choose higher lexiled books.”
The end of the quarter result? Almost an entire class of gifted 8th graders writing reports based on Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Lemony Snicket books. When I received those reports, I asked my students why they all chose those same books.
“Are you guys really into these series?” I asked them. “Almost all of you chose one of these books.”
They shrugged and one brave student answered honestly, “Not really. I actually read them, like, three years ago. But they have high Lexiles so…” He didn’t need to finish. Using their Lexiles hadn’t challenged their reading skills, it had only challenged their loophole skills.
Sure enough, if you look up the Lexiles for these two series, they each average around 1000L. So what’s the problem? Compare a page of Dickens to a page of Kinney:
According to Lexile.com, the higher level text is the one on the left.
And what determinants are used when assigning Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever (1060L) a higher lexile than, say, A Christmas Carol (900L)…or The Great Gatsby (820L)…or Othello (770L)…or (well, you get the point)? Two things, according to Lexile.com: “the sentence length and difficulty of the vocabulary is examined throughout the book.” A text is rated based on the frequency of commonly used words and the number of words in a sentence. In other words, it’s a lot of math to rate a piece of English.
Between all of those algorithms, not once is pure content taken into account when Lexiles are assigned to texts. Theme? Figurative language? Symbolism? Forget about it. Lexile.com states in a Youtube video that Lexile scores are “meant to be an indication of that book’s overall text-complexity.” However, this mistakenly implies that content does not impact complexity. I find that text complexity goes beyond the number of words repeated in a 125-word slice of text and the length of sentences. Diary of a Wimpy Kid might have some rock-star sentences pushing 20 words, but I’d still argue that analyzing the symbolism of the white clothing in The Great Gatsby will stretch a mind further.
For its part, Lexile.com does not claim to be a grade-level system – it even says on its website “This information is for descriptive purposes only and should not be interpreted as a prescribed guide about what an appropriate reader measure or text measure should be for a given grade” – yet it does include a grade-level equivalent chart right after this disclaimer because there’s no denying that several schools and teachers assign specific Lexiles to a specific grade. Even Common Core assigns specific Lexiles to grade level bands with a chart shown in their Appendix A.
The result is that too many students are being forced to abandon great literature because it doesn’t fit the text-complexity mold.
There is merit in pushing students to read complex texts. After all, this is why I banned Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Lemony Snicket books from my advanced 8th grade reading reports. (They can still use them for our Battle of the Books competition because I will never again tell a student not to read a book!)
So what is my suggestion for those teachers that still have to follow the Lexile framework? Offer students the Prove It Platform. I tell each and every student that if they can prove to me why a book is appropriate for them, I will give it the “okay.” All on their own I have students coming up to me with annotated texts covered with underlined figurative language and circled vocabulary. In this way, Lexile.com has helped my student develop as readers because there is nothing more authentic than analyzing a text in order to argue its Lexile.
After all, I think that two initiatives must be remembered when choosing student texts.
1. If you are encouraging students to build a lifelong reading habit, do not dissuade them from reading books of interest because they did not spit out the correct score when plugged into a proscribed formula.
2. Complexity may be a two-dimensional rating of word frequency and sentence length, but depth is a three-dimensional rating of diction, content, and structure. And in the end, it is depth that will encourage our students to truly grow.