Monday, November 11, 2013

Lexile Scores

Oh my.  Apparently the new thing in teaching reading is the Lexile score.  This is a score that supposedly shows how complex the book it, and so at what grade it should be taught.  An English professor in The New Republic argues against the use of the scores here and points out how ridiculous they are.  For example, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway is rated as an easier book than Charlotte's Web.  Hemingway is writing about the lost generation after WWI, and the main character, who wanders through Spain (as I remember), is impotent because of a war injury.  Charlotte's Web is about a talking spider.  Which one would you give to a third grader? At any rate, I'm afraid everyone is missing the main point about teaching reading these days.

I taught high school English for almost forty years.  Here is what is wrong with the whole Lexile model.

Sophisticated readers acquire their advanced reading skills through wide, avid reading.  There is no shortcut.  And avid readers become avid readers when they fall in love with books, and figure out how to find that next book they will love.  I think it was Katha Pollitt who first used the term “independent reading life.”   The best readers I had in my English classes were always, always, the kids with an independent reading life.

Children don’t develop an independent reading life when someone is always handing them a book and telling them to read it.  First of all, the odds are great that the student simply won’t read the assigned book.  At least half of my students told me, over and over again, both to my face and in anonymous surveys, that they almost never did all of the assigned reading.  Some kids did none of it.  There are all kinds of ways to avoid assigned reading, and my students knew all of them.

Secondly, when you are always just handing a book to a kid and saying “Read this,” he doesn’t develop the interest or ability to find books himself—crucial for developing advanced reading skills. 

You want to raise reading scores?  Open up classrooms to student-selected reading.  Help students find out what kinds of books they enjoy.  Allow time in class for silent reading.  Reward kids who read a lot. 


  1. Hi, Mary. I've said this before, and I'll say it again, and I'll keep saying it until some level of understanding sets in. The Lexile framework is not meant for sophisticated readers. It's not meant as a shortcut. It's not meant for avid readers. It's not meant for kids with an independent reading life. Those kids don't need lexiles or any framework at all, because they've moved beyond the need for basic comprehension. For the kids you're talking about, text comprehension is a given. They'll understand what they're reading, and if it the text is too far over their heads, they might give up on THAT book, but they'll find another one that is closer to their level.

    But for kids who HATE reading, who struggle with basic comprehension, the lexile framework is a lifesaver. It allows them to find books that are high-interest but that they can also comprehend. There's nothing, NOTHING, that stops a kid from reading faster than when they feel like they're stupid because they can't decode the text. And I'm sure you know this.

    With proper intervention, using the lexile framework and high-impact intervention programs, the turnaround for "lost students" can be dramatic. Yes, some districts and some teachers get lazy and overuse the lexile framework for purposes it was never meant for, but the fault is on the teachers and the district, not the tool.

    1. Thank you for posting your comment. Perhaps we are talking about different age levels. Since you are talking about decoding, it sounds like you are working with elementary school kids, and I agree that a child needs a book he can decode.

      However, the books mentioned in the article were all, essentially, books that are read by older readers, i.e. middle and high school. I have taught kids who came into my class hating reading for almost forty years, and, truly, the degree of difficulty wasn't nearly as important as the content of the book, and the student's desire to read it. I've had students take weeks and weeks to read one book because it is difficult--but if they love the book they'll get through it, and then go on to read other books like it. I had one boy who was only interested in "fixing tractors" as he said. Finally he found a book on nuclear meltdowns (that I would have had trouble reading) and, over the next couple of months, read every word and wrote endless journal entries on it. Then he went on to read a lot of other stuff.