My Bio

My Bio
My name is Sharon Levin and I've been reviewing children's literature for 17 years. I founded and run the Bay Area Children's Literature List. My biggest passion (outside my family) is getting books into the hands of children and teens. My favorite thing is getting non-readers to realize that they're readers. I also LOVE t-shirts that have to do with books or literature. As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll have a click through on the above picture so you can see my entire collection (and where to get them).

May 6, 2013

LEXILES ARE B.S.!!!

 Yes, I am jumping on my soap box (this will happen relatively often).  I have been never been a fan of students identifying themselves through a number (hi, I'm a 760, can you find me a book?).  But something happened recently at the school where I volunteer, and it inspired me to write this at this time.

Okay, first I guess I should explain what Lexiles are. They are a way of 'leveling' a book (yes, that's verbizing a word and I hate that, but I'm hoping my disdain comes through when I use that term) to let children and teen readers know what books they should be reading.  Lexiles are based ENTIRELY on vocabulary.  The more often an unknown or uncommon word shows up, the higher the Lexile score, the higher the score the more difficult the book is (according to the Lexile people, at least).

Back in the day when I worked for Addison-Wesley Publishing, we called these Readabilities.  One of my jobs as a freelancer was to run readabilities on books. Let me tell you what that entailed.

I would choose random pages within the book (I don't remember how many) and type a paragraph into the computer.  Back would pop up the unfamiliar or uncommon words with a score (a reading level).  Content and context were not taken into consideration.  Now, these WERE textbooks, so plot was not really an issue.

While I don't remember most of the books I ran readabilities on, I do remember one book that stood out as an example of how stupid these levels were.  The book was a computer textbook.  Given that this was 1984 (yes, I'm old) the readability program considered the word 'computer' to be an uncommon word,  so every time the word 'computer' showed up in this COMPUTER textbook, it would bump up the reading level.  Do we see a problem here?

Fast forward to now, when I am a professional booktalker, reviewer and evangelist for children's books (in a non-religious way).

When I give booktalks I always, ALWAYS insist on talking about Lexiles as part of my talk.  The number of teachers and librarians who come up afterward to tell me they appreciate what I'm saying and that it supports their own feelings and knowledge as educators is overwhelming (and quite validating).

 A couple of years ago I gave a number of booktalks at our local high school in preparation for summer reading. It was great fun and quite a few students came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed it (as did their teachers).  I even heard from teachers this year that they had students who had been touched by those past booktalks.

So, this year I was getting ready to prep booktalks for the high school again and I checked in with the department chair to see which teachers would like me to come to their classrooms. Because of the objections of one teacher, I made sure that I was upfront with the chair about my insistence on including Lexile information in my talk (and that I would leave my opinions at the door).

(As a parenthetical comment, the objecting teacher agreed that Lexiles weren't great, but they gave teachers a starting point.  My response was that that's the equivalent of a Geography teacher starting with a 3-D model of a flat Earth.  If your tools are wrong, how are they useful?)

When I heard back from the department chair, I was told they could not use me if I made any disparaging statements about Lexiles because the district uses SRI and Read 180 programs, which rely on Lexiles to tell students what books they should be reading.

What is this dangerous information I want to share?  Why are teachers and administrators afraid to have students know a fact about the program by which they are judged?  I do not know.  Keep in mind that I was not going to give my opinion, I was not going to use the term B.S.  I was merely going to give information.

Are you ready for what they don't want me to tell their students?  Here it is:

The Wee Little Woman is a board book by Byron Barton and has a Lexile of 1300

Moby Dick (yes, THAT Moby Dick) by Herman Melville has a Lexile of 1200. (in theory, the higher the Lexile the harder the book).


Oh, and the stunning, STUNNING book The Arrival by Shaun Tan has no Lexile because it is wordless (which does not mean that this book is not complex and thought provoking, sigh).


 Shhh, don't tell the students.


25 comments:

  1. It sounds as if lexiles need to be exiled or completely re-vamped.

    I'm so curious why THE WEE LITTLE WOMAN got a 1300. And do they re-look at books? In other words, a book in 1984 that was bumped up because it had the uncommon word computer--is that book then re-evaluated?

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    1. The more often an uncommon word shows up, the higher the level. Because 'wee' is not used often in the U.S. (it would be in Britain I would guess) every time it appears, the book goes up in score.

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    3. Ah, my above comment was deleted by me because I couldn't figure out how to edit it, sigh. Here's teh correct version:

      Hillary, I just read your second question (my sieve like brain strikes again). Are books re-evaluated? I honestly don't know. The book I worked on is completely out of date of course Keep in mind the textbook industry is quite the racket and they come out with new books every year at very high prices.

      I did notice that The Old Man and the Sea is a 940 (much lower than Wee Little Woman) but the edition with the Harold Bloom introduction is a 1370 so that Lexile is influenced by the INTRODUCTION! Go figure.

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  2. This is interesting - do you rmeber a few years back in the UK lots of authors were up in arms that the publishers wanted to print a recommended reading age on the back of books? I think they won. The argument against was the limitational nature it imposed on the kids by their own self selections (not wanting to be seen to read too young) but mostly by their parents.

    From my experience the best way to create a 'reader' is to surround them with amazing books - all types and genres - graphic novels and cartoons to 'adult' (Moby Dick, Animal Farm etc.)
    No labels just joy.

    I LOVE Shaun Tan and use him all the time in my creative writing classes!

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    1. Oh, I LOVE THAT!!! I'm stealing that from you (is it stealing if I tell you first?) :-)

      No labels, just joy.

      THANK YOU!

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  3. Institutional change is so hard. Good for you for not backing down on an important issue - that was so wrong of the department to reject your talk - sorry about that. You're right, words are such a one-dimensional way to measure meaning.

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  4. So this is what happens when you get computers to read books. Next you'll have the computers writing books. :(

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  5. I can remember the sheer joy of discovering new words when I was a kid. I LOVED it when I came across a word I hadn't seen before. (I still do.) When I was working on Spellbinder and Midnight Gate I didn't compromise on word choice at all - I told the stories to myself, using the words I would use. The idea of somehow limiting access or making rules about what kids SHOULD read is simply appalling.

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    1. Absolutely! There is such a joy in discovering a new word or concept.

      For those of you who haven't read Helen's books, you have quite a treat ahead of you. Helen's love of language comes through in her writing.

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  6. Librarians hate Lexiles and their bogus straightjacketing ways. I have a jillion examples of Lexile books gone wrong, though The Wee Little Woman/ Moby Dick is hard to top. My fave is Dem Bones, by Bob Barner, with a lexile of 1300 because at the end there is a list of the bones of the body. Exile Lexile!

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    1. Cristina, that's a great example I didn't know that about the Bob Barner book. For those who don't know it, it's the old Knee Bone connected to the Thigh Bone song. I think Exile Lexile will have to be my next bumper sticker.

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  7. Thank you for this, Sharon. In my other life, I am a school board member, a former board chair, who has been fighting this mentality since what feels like the last ice age. This is not how you teach children to love reading and books. This is not how you teach them to become lifelong learners. This is not rocket science. As a nation we are growing successive generations of nonreaders. Are we surprised by the dismal results? We will be run over by others and we will have earned it.

    Stepping down off my soapbox, now. Not.

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  8. Sharon, I so utterly agree with your anti-lexilism!

    Yikes! Using that word just blew the lexile ceiling on this comment. And yet somehow I don't think it'll be a comprehension obstacle for anyone.

    I'm speaking here not only as a writer, but also as a teacher with 14 years' classroom experience in the States and around the world--and as a university teacher educator of 19 years' experience--and as a university English lecturer with 10 years' experience--and perhaps most significantly, as the husband of an amazing professor of reading and the father of three of the most book-loving people you'll ever meet.

    We live in a culture that's still very quantitative. Lexiles give a comforting illusion of control when it comes to what is, after all, a very mysterious relationship--that between a reader and a text. Texts are complex, and readers are complex, and readers have the added complexity of always changing. On top of that, there's an x-factor involved in a reader's response to a particular text. So we simply can't predict in any thorough way which text is appropriate to which reader. I'm not saying teachers, librarians and parents shouldn't take a shot at matching kids with particular texts; that's a good thing to do, and it often works! But there's no formula for this.

    Worse, some of the lexile-based programs encourage a weird sense of "quantitativeness" in kids; I often hear from teachers about kids choosing books, not based on interest, but on the book's numerical value in the program. This clearly works AGAINST the intrinsic motivation that's at the heart of becoming a reader.

    I often do a presentation on this very topic for my education students, and it's an eye-opener for many of them, especially the telling anecdotes I've collected. I have a feeling that you and I say pretty much the same thing.

    So keep on, Superwoman! There'll always be a Lexile Luther, but we can at least thwart some of his evil plans.

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    1. Tim, thank you so much for your well spoken and well thought out comments (I would love to hear your anecdotes that you teach your students).

      I was talking about this with a friend and she said, "But why do you feel the need to say anything?" and I have two answers for that. One, I am a firm believer in the phrase, Silence is Condoning, and I don't want to be perceived as being in the 'Lexile camp'.

      And two, I asked a teacher at the high school (before I published this blog) if s/he (keeping this anonymous) would like to hear my Lexile elevator speech (pretty much "Wee Little Woman 1300, Moby Dick 1200" that's it) and her/his response was, "No, I'm trying to drink the Koolaid at the moment." WOW. So this teacher equates Lexiles with poison, but is willing to pour it down his/her students' throats without their knowing the Koolaids' ingredients (to continue using his/her analogy)

      THIS is why I will continue to rant PUBLICLY about Lexiles, because I truly believe it causes harm and to stand by quietly is wrong.

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  9. Keep evangelizing, Sharon. Your insights and passion are much needed in these muddling times. Lexiles -- bah. Never knew they even existed till now, and have been quite happy reading, writing, and sharing books with children.

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  10. I completely agree. Last year my then 10 year old did a Lexile test at home and I know why he has a lower score than his reading level - the questions ask about details he just doesn't pick up! He complains that the books in his level are boring & too easy. My younger son read the first Harry Potter book at 7, but didn't do too well on his Lexile test - and he reads the Macquarie Dictionary for fun :) (wonder what the Lexile level for that is....?)

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    1. That is one of the other issues with Lexile and Accelerated Reader, is that kids are discouraged from reading outside their 'level' which is ridiculous. Don't let them identify themselves as a number and try your best to keep the teacher from doing that as well. Feel free to send anyone who gives you a hard time to this blog or to me. :-)

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  12. Having appreciated your comments about Lexile and the world of "leveled" reading, I thought I'd pass a link to this page along to the Lexile folks and invite a response. We'll see...

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    1. Did you hear anything? I haven't (maybe my blog is beyond their reading level). Yes, I'm snarky today (why should today be any different?)

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  13. Hello Sharon, Have you looked at any of the Common Core Curriculum Maps published by Jossey Bass/Wiley? Just curious. We talk about CCCS all the time at Perseus, with our publishers, and with educators and librarians we know personally and professionally. Whatever CCCS is or isn't it definitely isn't No Child Left Behind which was all about teaching to the test. I am so relieved that it is behind us. Literature will always sell, but NCLB made it very difficult for nonfiction publishers. Love to talk with you offline about it sometime . . . Susan Mc

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  14. Hi Susan, I'm hearing mixed messages on the Common Core, but many of the teachers whom I greatly respect are not all that thrilled. One of the biggies is that it's being used before the teachers have received much training, which seems extremely short sighted to me. Another concern is the CCCS emphasis on text which does not sound like they're talking about books. I have purchased Diane Ravitch's REIGN OF ERROR and I'm going to hear her at Stanford on 9/30 (she's in Berkeley on 9/28, so Elise will catch her there). I know she doesn't like Common Core, so I'm interested in learning more.

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  15. how do i get a advance in English ever year but have a basic lexile score

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