Monday, October 22, 2012

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 Lexile.com. 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.