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Guess My Lexile

By Donalyn Miller — July 25, 2012 4 min read
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What do Jeff Kinney’s popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 have in common? What about Gossip Girl: A Novel, Cicely von Ziegesar’s catty romance and The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson’s 1979 Newbery Honor book? While clear distinctions exist between each book’s literary merit, age appropriateness, and reader appeal, these titles possess one similarity--they sit within the same Lexile text complexity band.**

Well-meaning educators, concerned about increasing text complexity and reading rigor, engage in this game of “Guess My Lexile” when denouncing the low-reading level of young adult literature, elevating certain titles over others, or dictating book purchases and recommended reading lists. But looking at just a few examples reveals problems when narrowly evaluating texts by readability number alone.

The Lexile Framework for Reading by Metametrix provides quantitative assessment of both students’ reading levels and texts’ complexity. Students receive a Lexile measure from certain reading tests. Books and other texts receive a Lexile measure from a software tool, the Lexile Analyzer, which evaluates word frequency and sentence length. Many schools use Lexile measures to assess students’ reading levels and match students with appropriately rigorous reading material.

I have no issue with assessing students’ reading levels and identifying text complexity. As a teacher, I find such information helpful when determining my students’ reading ability and what books might fit them. What concerns me is that in many situations, Lexile measures become the sole factor in book selection and recommendation.

While identifying readability can be useful when evaluating textbooks, guided reading texts, or other teaching materials, selecting books for classroom instruction and recommending books for independent reading are two different processes. Avid readers do not always read at the edge of their competence, traveling through increasingly more difficult texts as leveling systems proscribe (Carter, 2000). Given free choice, readers select reading material according to their interests, preferences, background knowledge, purposes for reading, and personal motivation.

I hear horror stories about teachers and librarians rigidly enforcing Lexile bands--preventing children from reading books that aren’t at their Lexile level: Students can’t read an entire series because every book isn’t at their Lexile. Students can’t use sections of school and classroom libraries because the books are too easy or too hard (according to Lexile measures). Parents receive Lexile reading lists for their children with strict instructions to exclusively use these lists when purchasing books.

In cynical moments, I picture a Lexile store selling tattoo kits, so over-zealous educators can brand students with their Lexiles. Wouldn’t this make trips to the library easier for everyone?

Investigating Lexile measures further, imagine my surprise when I found this information on Metametrix’s website:

“Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered.”

Addressing questions such as, “What do Lexile measures tell me about grade appropriateness?” “Why do some great books have low Lexile measures?” and “What is the relationship between grade equivalents and Lexile measures?” I found several informative videos and researched-based responses on Metametrix’s website, which reinforce that Lexile measures do not tell us everything we need to know about texts or students. With Lexile measures touted as a key indicator of text complexity as defined by Common Core State Standards, we must critically consider what Lexile bands offer teachers and students, and what they don’t.

Overreliance on reading level systems hinders children from learning how to self-select books. Bookstores, libraries, and Grandma’s bookshelf aren’t leveled. Beyond students’ and books’ reading levels, we must consider content and interests when selecting materials and recommending books for independent reading. Slavish devotion to numbers doesn’t benefit readers.

Is this practice employed because it’s better for kids or just easier for adults? What about children who find their reading experiences limited when Lexile numbers dictate their book access and choices? Looking at a child’s face or a book’s cover, I see possibility, not a number.We can’t shortcut or disregard knowing books, knowing readers, and building connections between them.

Reading leveling systems like Lexile, DRA, and Guided Reading provide teachers and librarians with one measure for making book recommendations and supporting students as they self-select books, but children shouldn’t wear their reading levels like a badge and become defined by them.

Do we teach children how to preview and evaluate books for themselves or teach them that reading and book selection belong to school and we can’t trust them with it?

For additional commentary about Lexile, reading level systems, and text complexity:

The Lexile Framework: Unnecessary and Potentially Harmful” by Dr. Stephen Krashen

From ASCD’s Educational Leadership, “The Challenge of Challenging Texts” by Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey

Lamentations from the Lex-aisle” by Paul W. Hankins

From School Library Journal, “Formula for Failure: Reading Levels and Readability Formulas Do Not Create Lifelong Readers” by Betty Carter

**According to Titlewave:
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid 950
Fahrenheit 451 890
Gossip Girl 820
The Great Gilly Hopkins 800

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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