One of my favorite features of the SCBWI Bulletin is the Needed Subjects column. I’m not exactly sure from where the author (Libby Nelson) compiles these, but it’s always an interesting list.  The January/Februrary list included some nonfiction topics that made me quite happy, namely Women’s Airforce Service Pilots during WWII, Women’s Rights (or non-rights) before the 1920’s, and Alpacas and how they differ from llamas.

Another entry raised my hackles:

Fiction:

There is a lack of age appropriate books for elementary children you read at a higher level than their grade. Children who are in 3rd/4th grade, yet who read at the Lexile level for 6th grade or above are not challeged by existing elementary age fiction. The only fiction available for their reading level are young adult books and the middle/high school subject matter is not appropriate for younger readers.

There are so many problems with this request. Problems that I attribute to the adults (most likely parents), who are making this request, not with Ms. Nelson herself. First is that phrase “not challenged.” Not challenged how? The logic of the paragraph means that by “challenged” we are referring to Lexile level. So just what is a Lexile? Let’s ask the people who created them:

A book, article or piece of text gets a Lexile text measure when it’s analyzed by MetaMetrics. For example, the first “Harry Potter” book measures 880L, so it’s called an 880 Lexile book. A Lexile text measure is based on the semantic and syntactic elements of a text. 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.

So, basically, Lexiles are determined automatically based on how frequently the same words appear in the text (semantics) and sentence length (syntactic elements). That’s it. Word frequency and sentence length. Much has been made of how ridiculous these Lexiles can be. As pointed out, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a measure of 880L, most likely due to the long sentences and Rowling’s creative use of (often world-specific) vocabulary. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath? 680L. But clearly a student would be challenged by this book. High school students all over the country are. It’s challenging because of the ideas expressed, the structure (and length) of the novel, and the background knowledge needed to understand the historical context. Which one are you going to give to a fourth grader? If you were to give the parent making the request for “more challenging” books Harry Potter, would he be satisfied?

As a writer, I’m not sure how I would even be able to meet this request. I already try to avoid repeating words — and the intrepid copyeditors call me on it when I miss the mark. As for sentence length, sure I could write long ones. But then I’d lose the stylistic weapon of manipulating rhythm and pace by varying sentence length.

The thing of it is, even if I gamed the system and upped my Lexile (FWIW, The Water Castle is rated 690L), I’m not sure I would have met the request. Because what it comes down to, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding of Lexiles and of “challenging” texts. MetaMetrics is careful to point out that Lexile does not match up with grade level:

There is no direct correspondence between a specific Lexile measure and a specific grade level.

Still, they do provide bands of texts Lexiles and the corresponding grades. They do so most likely under pressure and with a bolded caveat:

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 gradeNOTE: These bands do not represent performance levels or performance standards. They provide descriptive information and are appropriate for norm-referenced interpretations only.

If you look at the bands, you will see they are quite wide (Lexile-to-Grade Correspondence The Lexile® Framework for Reading), and cover the 25th to the 75th percentile of a given grade. Fourth grade, for example, is listed at 640L to 780L. So let’s get back to that 3rd/4th grader reading at a 6th grade level. According to the chart, that would mean we’re looking for books from a 860 to 920 level. Pop that into the MetaMetrics Find a Book by Lexile machine and, narrowing to Fiction and Literature, I get over 1000 hits, including many of the Joey Pigza books. What’s not there because they would not be complex enough? Little Women (750L), The Yearling (750L), A Wrinkle in Time (740L). These are all classic novels I would give to a third or fourth grader looking for a challenge, but they are way too easy for one “reading at a sixth grade level”, right?

And what about those tough books we struggled through in high school? The aforementioned The Grapes of Wrath falls into the band for third to fourth graders, The Catcher in the Rye is fourth to fifth, as does Lord of the Flies. (But have no fear, Austen fans — Pride & Prejudice is safely high school material according to these measures).  But wait! you might say, Maybe those books are not so complicated in terms of their semantics and syntactical elements, but they have challenging content.

Exactly.

If you really want to look at text complexity, you can’t just look at lexiles. There have always been parents who insist their kids read at “a much higher grade level.” If you’ve worked in a public library, it seems that every town is Lake Wobegone, with their children well above average. But this focus on Lexiles is relatively new. Part of it stems from reading programs such as Reading Counts and AR. I would hypothesize, though, that the problem has been compounded by the Common Core’s emphasis on increasingly complex texts. The standards are very clear that complexity is not simply a quantitative measure (such as a Lexile), but rather a balance between three factors:

text_complexity

 

And yet I don’t think it comes as a real surprise that the measure of complexity that can be done by a computer, rather than by careful reading by an actual person, is the one that’s getting all the attention. If you can look at a Lexile and say, “Yep, that’s complex!” without even reading the book — well, that’s a short cut a lot of people are going to take. But to really measure whether a text is complex — if it is going to “challenge” a reader — you also need to look at other factors. In the Common Core model (which I actually think is a decent one), you also need to look at qualitative measures, which they define as “Levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands”. In other words, look a little deeper at how the text is put together, and also consider the background knowledge needed to understand it. Reader and task take into account both the reader, and the purpose for reading. The Common Core asks that as students get older, texts get more complex. Seems fair. That is one point of education, right? To get better at something?

But is that the point of reading? Readers — adults and children — read for all sorts of reasons. And for this reason reading should not be seen as a slog through levels of complexity. When working with students you need to consider the reader and the task (or reason for reading). Parents, teachers, and other adults who ask for books to challenge their kids are not only showing a shallow understanding of what “challenging”, but also ignoring the many internal and external motivations for reading.

But, I can play along with the question. After all, maybe the reason for reading is to be challenged. Clearly, step one is to move away from Lexiles as the measure of challenge. Lets get back to that third or fourth grader from the question. Here are some suggestions to challenge that reader in different ways. Many (probably all) of these titles could fall into multiple categories, but I forced myself to pick just one for each.

Looking for books that ask big questions? Try:

Looking for books that will thrill you with their gorgeous language and literary techniques? Try:

Looking for books that will teach you something new or introduce you to a slice of history? Try:

I think we can scratch this off the list of “Needed Subjects.” The books are out there, we just need to broaden our definitions of “challenging”. In fact, I would love to keep generating more “challenging” books. Please add your suggestions in the comments.

The Tyranny of Lexiles
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One thought on “The Tyranny of Lexiles

  • April 14, 2015 at 11:40 am
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    Thank you for this. I love your idea for creating a challenging reading list. As a children’s librarian I find the whole lexile thing to be the most stressful and disappointing part of my job. It is an everyday occurrence to have parents tell their child they can’t read a perfectly good book because of the number.

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