The Trouble with Lexiles

I have mixed feelings about Lexile scores and other ways of quantifying reading levels. I understand the benefits of putting leveling systems in place, and I can understand why parents and teachers find such information extremely useful, especially when working with a child who is a reluctant reader. But as a children’s librarian, I avoid using these kinds of tools, and I find it a bit concerning when I deal with people who rely too heavily on them. Before I explain why, let me take a minute to acknowledge the value of such leveling systems.

Reading abilities are highly individual. When a book is said to be, for example, recommended for grades three through five, that doesn’t mean that no first or second grader would be capable of reading or enjoying it, or that a middle schooler would find it babyish or too easy. Quantifying reading levels apart from grade is a great way to individualize recommended books. It makes life easier for the young reader, who can access books at his or her level without getting frustrated or overwhelmed trying to read books that are too hard, or getting annoyed or bored with books that are too easy. It’s a good way for parents and teachers to make sure that their young readers are being challenged enough to grow in their reading ability without struggling through tough books that they aren’t ready for yet. And everyone who works with kids knows that helping kids to find books at their exact level promotes literacy by allowing kids to enjoy their reading material to the fullest. (As long as the topics and plots are of interest to the reader)

In essence, assigning a Lexile measure or other reading level to an individual book or individual child is a shortcut to determining what books are right for what readers. In the library, we call that readers’ advisory, and we take a very different approach, focusing more heavily on topic than reading level. As a librarian, when a child comes to me looking for a book recommendation, I need determine both the child’s approximate reading level and his or her areas of interest, but it will be the areas of interest that will give me ideas about specific titles to recommend. The reading level is just a way of narrowing the field down a little to what’s developmentally appropriate. And as a professional with knowledge of children’s literature, I feel that I do a better job of making good book recommendations when I’m not using shortcuts like Lexile measures or other reading level systems. There’s some value to using the human element in book selection.

So part of it comes down to the difference between a teacher and a librarian. Both are professionals who want to help children learn to read and love to read, but a teacher will be focusing more heavily on the educational aspect, while a librarian will often lean a little on the enjoyment side, especially when it comes to people old enough to read independently. So, from a librarian’s perspective, it’s perfectly okay for a child to read a little above or below his or her reading level, as long as that child likes the book. In fact, research shows that the number one best way to foster a love for reading is to let a child pick his or her own reading materials.

But my real complaint about assigning specific reading levels to books or to children is that they aren’t always completely accurate. They can’t take every factor into consideration. I am more familiar with Lexile scores than with other systems of leveling books, so for the moment, I’m going to talk specifically about the shortcomings of the Lexile system. Although, overall, I think that Lexiles are among the better ones, since they range on a spectrum from approximately 0 to approximately 2000, while most other systems have a much more limited number of levels. (In the near future, I will do more reading on other leveling systems, both for the sake of this blog and for my own professional development.)

The Lexile score of a book is analyzed by a complex algorithm that mainly looks at sentence length and word frequency. A book with short sentences and common words is considered easier and has a lower Lexile score while a book with more long sentences and a larger number of uncommon words is considered harder and has a higher Lexile score. That might sound like a pretty accurate way of determining a book’s difficulty level, but it leaves out some important things. One obvious flaw is that picture books for preschoolers often have higher Lexile scores than books for young independent readers. This is because books that are designed to be read aloud can have longer and more complicated sentences and still be developmentally appropriate. Lexiles also do not take into consideration the size of the text and the amount of pictures, which contribute greatly to a book’s reading level. Adults may think that those traits only determine how hard a book looks, but a young reader’s eye movements have a harder time reading small text or dense text, so a book with large text and plenty of white space or pictures is genuinely easier to read. Also, Lexile scores do not and cannot take content into consideration. A book can be highly intellectual, or contain mature content, and still have a relatively low Lexile score if it manages to use simple terms and short sentences.

I’m perfectly okay with people using Lexiles and other reading levels as a way of starting their search for the right book, and I’m even in favor of teachers using such systems as a tool for selecting books to assign. But I would appreciate it if adults understood that they cannot rely entirely on such quantifications. At some point, in order to determine a book’s reading level, you have to simply read it yourself or get your information from someone who has read it. If you’re in the library looking for a book for a child, your best bet is to have the child with you and let the child participate in selecting the book. Not only does this contribute to the child’s enthusiasm for reading, but the child will instinctively assess factors such as text size and sentence length, probably without even realizing that he or she is doing so. For children who are already avid readers, none of the above discussion is really even particularly relevant. Young book-lovers can be surprisingly adept at picking out good books, and at surviving not-so-good books.

My biggest problem with Lexile scores and other quantified reading level systems is nothing inherent in those systems at all, but rather, an abuse of them that is all too common. Many parents and even some teachers and librarians act as if it’s okay to tell children not to read certain books because they’re “not your level.” As a librarian, I can’t tell you how often I hear that phrase from parents. While parents obviously have the right to determine what their children may read, much more so than teachers or librarians do, it is in no way helpful to eliminate certain books from the realm of options simply because of reading level. I can certainly understand a parent making a judgment call that their children shouldn’t read books with objectionable content, but “too easy” or “too hard” should not be objectionable. And for the record, the developers of leveled reading systems tend to agree with me on that.

It had been my intention to share a few articles from scholarly sources explaining the research behind much of what I’ve said, but unfortunately, those articles are hard to locate and impossible to read when you’re not logged into any library-provided databases. In the interest of getting this post out there a little faster, I will post it as is. Down the road, I promise to provide sources for my assertions on topics such as literacy. In the meantime, if this information is of interest and relevance to you, please refer to this powerpoint I found online that explains how Lexiles work and how they can be properly used for the benefit of young readers.

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