How Lexiles Harm Students

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

About a month ago, a woman approached me at a conference. She picked up a copy of ASHFALL and asked me, “What’s the Lexile on this?”

This question threw me for a bit of a loop. I’m used to being asked what ASHFALL’s about, how much it is, or where I got the idea for it. “What’s a Lexile?” I asked.

“They use it at my daughter’s school,” she replied. “To match students with books at the right level for them.”

“Oh, like the Guided Reading level.” I happen to know about those because my wife’s school district uses them. They always seemed a bit idiotic–what reader chooses a book based solely on its reading level? But since at her school they’re used as suggestions, not mandates, and take the content of the books into account, they’ve never really bothered me. “ASHFALL is a Z+ on the Guided Reading level scale,” I said.

Here’s where the rabbit hole started to get twisty. “We don’t use Guided Reading,” she said. “We use Lexiles. And my daughter isn’t allowed to read anything below 1,000.” The italics are mine. You’ll have to imagine my angry shouting at a school that won’t allow their students to read–no matter what the excuse.

“I’m sure it’s fine, then. ASHFALL is a Z+. It’s got to be at least a thousand on your school’s scale. What does she like to read?”

“She loved The Hunger Games, but the school wouldn’t count it. It’s too easy for her.” (I later looked up The Hunger Games–its Lexile level is 810.)

“A lot of teens who liked The Hunger Games enjoy ASHFALL. How old is your daughter?”

“She’s in sixth grade.”

“You should read ASHFALL first, then–it depicts an apocalypse realistically. It’s very violent. Definitely not appropriate for all sixth-graders.”

“That’s okay. I just need to know what the Lexile level is. Can you look it up?”

I obliged and found ASHFALL listed at Its level? 750.

“It’s too easy for her, then.” The woman walked away as my lower jaw hit the table with an audible slap.

For kicks, I looked up Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms. Its Lexile? 730.

Is my work more difficult, more sophisticated, or more appropriate for older readers than that of Mr. Hemingway, a Nobel Laureate in literature? Of course not! Think about it: If this poor student stays in her school system, she’ll NEVER be allowed to read A Farewell to Arms. It’s allegedly too easy for her.

Since this conversation, I’ve heard of a high school that boxed up all its copies of Night, Elie Wiesel’s classic account of surviving the holocaust, and sent them to the elementary school, because it’s “too easy” for high school students. Its Lexile is 570.

Shocking as that example is, there’s a bigger problem: the Lexile system punishes good writing and rewards bad writing. I’ll illustrate this point with an example. Here’s the first sentence of a book that sixth-grader would have been allowed to read, a book with a Lexile of 1650:

“ON the theory that our genuine impulses may be connected with our childish experiences, that one’s bent may be tracked back to that “No-Man’s Land” where character is formless but nevertheless settling into definite lines of future development, I begin this record with some impressions of my childhood.”

Forty-eight words that can be replaced by three with no loss of  meaning: ‘My childhood was.’ This is a truly awful opening, whatever your opinion of the overall work.

Here’s a novel millions of sixth-graders have enjoyed. A novel with a Lexile of only 820. A novel this woman’s daughter would not be allowed to read:

“They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box  and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash.”

It’s clear and concise. It introduces the main character and opens irresistible story questions in the reader’s mind. If it were rewritten as one sentence, it would lose the flavor of gossip that makes it intriguing–and have a much higher Lexile score.

Good writing is simple. The best writers never use two words where one will do, and they choose their words with precision. But the Lexile system rewards complexity and obscurity by assigning higher Lexile scores for works with longer sentences and longer words. In short, students forced to use the Lexile system in their reading are being taught to be bad writers. And some are likely being forced into books that will turn them off to reading.

What should you do? If you’re a school administrator, teacher, or librarian, quit using Lexiles. I realize your motto isn’t, “First, do no harm,” but is that such a bad precept to follow? The Lexile system is actively harmful to your students.

If you’re a parent, let your child pick books the way you do–based on interest and need. Ask your school to dump the Lexile system. The last thing we need is an expensive program that makes the great work parents, teachers, and librarians do–educating our children–more difficult.

29 thoughts on “How Lexiles Harm Students

  1. I have never heard of such a system to choose books and it kind of borders on the ridiculous. I think if a child/teen expresses interest in reading, let them read. If a book is below their reading level, so what? The teacher can then expect a more in depth summary/review/book report of said book.
    I’ve always challenged my children to read and personally I didn’t care if they read the phone book, as long as they read. As a result, I have one child who reads above his reading level and another one who reads a little below. BUT – they are reading.
    I think the bigger issue is the reading lists assigned to children. There are so many great young adult books that are out today that are so much more relevant to these kids’s lives than the dated books on their reading lists. I’m not saying that good literature doesn’t have a place – it’s just that kids will read things that are relevant to their experiences.

  2. I’ve never been comfortable with rating systems for books. They’ve always seemed too arbitrary and never nuanced enough. My wife and I will either read the book ourselves first, or we’ll read reviews from people who’ve actually read it.

    When one of my children asks about a book they want to read I’m always more inclined to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’. Even so, my wife and I still consider the themes and content of any book, and our child’s age, before we agree. I have no problem with my kids reading “hard” books (my fifteen-year-old had been reading Dickens, Dumas and Verne for years) or books that deal with difficult subject matter (although I’ll own I’m a bit prudish about sex). Typically, Whenever we do say no, it’s less ‘no’ and more ‘not yet’.

  3. Mike you are confusing writing with story telling. A good story teller can grab the readers attention and hold it throughout the story. Sort of when us guys watch football, nothing distracts us cause we won’t allow it. A lot of people can write and more than likely get a very high Lexile rating but I can imagine they won’t make any money at it (except from the stupid school system that rates their writing high). You sir, are a story teller and not a writer and don’t ever try to be a writer.

    • No, I’m both a writer and a storyteller. The same traits that are effective in storytelling are effective in business writing and non-fiction writing. When I worked at Procter & Gamble, my memos were legendary for their clarity and persuasiveness. Great nonfiction writing is also simple and clear. For example, Gladwell’s The Outliers has a Lexile of only 1080.

  4. Mike, this issue bugs the heck out of me too. (Sorry I am coming late to the conversation) But I think somehow it’s tied up with the schools’ focus on testing now. When I was teaching, everything was about raising reading scores. We’d have meetings discussing how to get a student at the 20 percentile to move to the 25th or something inane like that. I kept saying: Why don’t we just get them to like READING books? The irony is that at the elementary school where my kids went they fired the librarian so they could hire a few reading specialists! I could go on and on about the idiocy–just hoping that the pendulum will swing back to what’s common sense eventually.

  5. I have never heard of Lexile but it sounds utterly ridiculous. When I was in school they did these reading tests and then told you your reading level based on grade level (1st – college)…and then that was it. They didn’t care what you picked up, as long as you were picking up something. They didn’t grade books like that…
    It makes me sad that someone would pass by amazing books just because the numbers are too low. They are missing out on a lot.

  6. As a children’s librarian, the reading lexile system is very upsetting to me. I have parents not letting their children select a book because it is not in their range – by a few points higher! They are looking for the magic number, not the books that will motivate and inspire children to read.

  7. I’m kind of surprised you never heard of it before now. When I started gifting my nephews with books, their mom & dad told me about the lexile level the kids needed. A Db available at the public library provided the score for whatever title you cared to query, you could even search by the score. It took me a couple of hours to realize I wasn’t going to get a book the kids would enjoy so I gave up haven’t looked back. No regrets.

  8. How exactly is a school supposed to forbid people from reading certain books? I imagine the point is that they don’t count toward some quota of books the students are supposed to read per year or something if they’re below their reading level? But come on, a school can’t tell you you can’t read something in your own free time. Unless, I suppose, your parents buy in wholeheartedly.

    • Obviously they can’t control what you read in your free time. But the reality is that 70% of the books teens read are supplied by a parent, teacher, or librarian. If all those people restrict reading based on Lexiles, students are harmed.

  9. This bothers me too – as a librarian, I’ve had parents actually yell at me because our (public!) library is not organized by Lexile level.

    It’s an odd dichotomy. Yes, you want kids to read books that challenge them, but is the definition of challenge solely determined by a Microsoft Word-like calculation of sentence length & numbers of letters in a word? I shouldn’t think so.

  10. Thank you! I am a school librarian and have been struggling against the almightly Lexile measure for student book selection. I have shared your posting with other librarians and educators and hope this will help others see the necessity of changing our Lexile-Limited reading policies. Thank you for adding to the dialogue as well as doing a little research for us.

  11. In what insane system is “Chester the Worldly Pig” a 1000, “A Tale of Two Cities” a 460, and “Macbeth” a 570? Are these people nuts? So if you use run on sentences, you get a higher score? What if a writer’s style is short meaningful sentences? In action scenes, shorter sentences add immediacy and move the pace faster.

    And clueless parents just buy into this? Or are they just held hostage by school administrators? I can see a need to determine reading level appropriateness. A high school student should not be reading a grade school novel for a book report, and teachers don’t have the time to review every book. But this is not the way to do it.

    What these scores are going to do is create a generation of people who don’t like to read because the books they were required to read were confusing and not well written.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing about this issue…I am a Children’s Librarian in a public library and get kids and parents looking for books based SOLELY on the Lexile or Accelerated Reader level. As a parent I fought against this system at my own school, and as a librarian I am chagrined every time I have to help a child find a book based solely on whether it meets the needed lexile or AR level.

  13. It was recommended that I use Lexile to find books for my son that would be on his level. He is a first grader reading at a fourth grade reading level but with the life experience of, well… a first grader. This means that while he may be able to read a book, he might not be able to comprehend it. I was told to use Lexile scores as a guide to determine what he might be able to comprehend as opposed to what he might be able to simply read. The Lexile number is meant to be a MAXIMUM, not a minimum when choosing books for your child. Even then it is meant to be a guide and not a barrier. I do not think the problem is so much the system, but rather how teachers, schools, and parents are choosing to use the system. The most important part of reading is enjoying what you read.

  14. Something to think about: Just because a school or a school district is uninformed and is using the lexile levels in a way that is completely unintended, doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the lexile system itself.

    • Something IS wrong with the Lexile system. Mike is completely correct in saying longer, run on sentences do create higher levels, and it does not factor in text complexity, subject matter, etc. And like the later posts suggest, there is a money trail to be followed in all of this…

  15. Schools should be using the Lexile measure as just a guideline, along with other aspects that make a book interesting to the student! That’s how our school uses it!

  16. My 6th grade, straight A student is being forced to read only books in her range, which by the way puts her between a 10th grade to a sophomore in college. She just turned 12!! I’m sorry, but Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter are not things she should be reading about. Or how about this one, A Clockwork Orange. Yeah, really appropriate. She is afraid her grade will suffer if she does not comply. She dreads getting her first ever B grade, or possibly worse. I am having a terrible time finding appropriate titles that fall in her range. Everything I read in my college prep Catholic high school is below her range. What are we supposed to do?

  17. I am a children’s librarian who blogged about this issue as well. Here are the links.

    The trend is getting worse every year. Lexiles should have remained a background issue and should have NEVER been introduced to parents or children as a means for book selection. The interesting thing is that ONE company is making a lot of money getting publishers to lexile their books and charging states to assign students lexile scores based on their standardized tests. Meanwhile, students who happen to be strong readers are being robbed of the body of literature written for them. We have utterly forgotten all the good reasons for reading in our quest to have good test takers. Uggggh!

  18. I am a children’s librarian who blogged about this issue as well. Here are the links.

    The trend is getting worse every year. Lexiles should have remained a background issue and should have NEVER been introduced to parents or children as a means for book selection. The interesting thing is that ONE company is making a lot of money getting publishers to lexile their books and charging states to assign students lexile scores based on their standardized tests. Meanwhile, students who happen to be strong readers are being robbed of the body of literature written for them. We have utterly forgotten all the good reasons for reading in our quest to have good test takers. Uggggh!

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