Lexile: A Bookseller’s Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

Guest bloggerThe following post by bookseller Melissa was cross-posted with permission from her blog, Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books. Thanks to Melissa for allowing us to share her perspective!

Fall has (almost) arrived.  Cool weather, pretty fall color, yummy drinks composed of apple cider or hot cocoa, and I get to wear scarves (I like scarves as an accessory).

And standardized testing, if you are or have a school-age child.

In my area of the country, it seems school districts have chosen testing that calculates a Lexile score for a child’s reading level with an associated score range.  Lexile is a company that uses a software program to analyze books for word usage, sentence length, etc. and produce a Lexile Text Measure for each book (I copied the description from the Lexile Analyzer site):

The Lexile ® measure of text is determined using the Lexile Analyzer ®, a software program that evaluates the reading demand—or readability—of books, articles and other materials. The Lexile Analyzer ® measures the complexity of the text by breaking down the entire piece and studying its characteristics, such as sentence length and word frequency, which represent the syntactic and semantic challenges that the text presents to a reader. The outcome is the text complexity, expressed as a Lexile ® measure, along with information on the word count, mean sentence length and mean log frequency.
Generally, longer sentences and words of lower frequency lead to higher Lexile ® measures; shorter sentences and words of higher frequency lead to lower Lexile ® measures. Texts such as lists, recipes, poetry and song lyrics are not analyzed because they lack conventional punctuation.

I’m not a huge fan of putting a “score” on a book based simply on a computer generated metric because the software doesn’t take into account context or content of a book.  Or form, cf poetry.  But this seems to be accepted by the educational powers-that-be, so it’s here for the time being. However, I don’t know how well or often the scores are explained to parents, because I wind up in a lot of parent-bookseller conversations like this:

Parent: My child has a Lexile score of XXXX.  She has to read books in the range of XXXX-XXXX.  Will this work?


Bookseller [thinks]: Craaaaaaaaap.
Bookseller [says]: Well, let’s pull up the Lexile site to see what it suggests for that range and go from there.

The major problem here is that the parent hasn’t THE FOGGIEST IDEA what books go with the child’s Lexile score or how score ranges line up

The Sun Also Rises cover
The Sun Also Rises, a title with a confusing Lexile identity

with likely grade-levels.  They don’t have/haven’t been provided with a list of suggestions for the range.  They haven’t looked up Lexile on the Internet to get a handle on what this thing is (I mean, hello, the Internet is the Information Superhighway, Google it).  And their poor child is off in the corner trying desperately to read another Warriors book by Erin Hunter or Wimpy Kid or the new Babymouse before the “grown-ups” force her into reading stuff that she thinks she doesn’t want to read.

As booksellers (and by extension librarians, a population I am not a member of but respect greatly), we are the information gatekeepers the parents turn to in this situation.  We are the ones to take an abstract range of numbers and turn it into a physical pile of titles and authors.  We have to differentiate between editions because scores can fluctuate wildly and Lexile isn’t very informative (type “The Sun Also Rises” into Lexile – the old Scribner edition has a score of 610L, the ISBN for the reprint isn’t found, and the Modern Critical Interpretations edition is listed with a score of 1420L….confusing, right?).  And we are the ones who have to know what stories lay between the covers of those books so we can explain the contents to the parents.

In almost every customer interaction regarding Lexile, I have had to find books for a child who reads significantly above grade level (at grade level is generally pretty easy and parents with children under grade level often have a list of recommended titles as a starting point; for some reason, those children who read above grade level don’t have many recommendations).  For reference, Lexile gives a grade approximation for the score ranges:

Even though the approximate ranges are pretty wide, a book or series that is popular among peers isn’t often in the “right” score range for an advanced reader.  Some titles are marked “NC” meaning a non-conforming score (higher than intended audience) but it’s hard to tease those out of a range during a search (I’ve tried).  It can get pretty emotional when the child cannot find anything he or she wants to read or that parents will allow them to read that “counts” for their Lexile score.

The biggest grade-to-score discrepancy I’ve come across was a seventh grade boy (and a bit young socially for his age) who had a Lexile score greater than 1100.  His Lexile range was approximately 1150 – 1210.  The boy had to read at least five books that semester in his range to pass English and he was already behind. His father had done some online research and was at a loss – he was having trouble finding content-appropriate books in that score range (there was also a religious consideration, so a lot of recommended fantasy titles were automatically out).  The boy was very open to reading Stephen King, who has a lot of high-Lexile score titles, but the idea was vetoed by Dad due to language (and probably the religious consideration as well).  Dostoevsky was perfectly acceptable to Dad, but the kiddo really couldn’t get excited about it (he was into Gary Paulsen’s Brian series, but that wasn’t even close).  Some Dumas was in the right range but not the more appealing titles (The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask are both under 1000).  Gary Paulsen’s My Life in Dog Years was just in range, so I was able to interest both parent and child in that.  I sold them on The Hound of the Baskervilles and then hit paydirt with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  The boy had a friend with an Asperger-like syndrome and they were friends in their advanced math classes. Whew.  Finally, three books and a reasonably happy father.  But I couldn’t help but think – what are they going to do as the child continues through the school system?

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this since this isn’t quite the usual tone for a “‘Tis the Season” post.

Well, I really just wanted to put this out there to maybe help save parents, children, and teachers (and possibly other booksellers and librarians)  had a little girl just burst into tears once when I told her The Last Olympian  - the book she so desperately wanted to read - had a score of 620L; she had to have books greater than 700 or her teacher wouldn't count them at all. some grief.  I would like to ask school administrators and teachers to work with children and parents to come up with lists of possible books appropriate to both grade-level and Lexile range (and I understand if you do this and the parents forget, are obstinate, or leave the list at home when they head to the bookstore).  For parents, Lexile provides a map with lists of titles for score ranges.  It’s a good place to start when trying to find books.

I would also like to ask teachers to be less rigid when assigning Lexile-related reading assignments because this seems to be where children have the most trouble.  I have so often helped kids who love, love to read but have found that none of the books they find appealing “count” for a reading assignment because they aren’t in the “right” Lexile range or have no score because either the book is too new or has an un-evaluable format.  These kids feel disheartened, that they’re failing, that the things they love are unimportant, and I hate seeing their disappointment when I’ve gone through the entire stack of books they’ve picked out and not a single one was in the right range.  I had a little girl just burst into tears once when I told her The Last Olympian  – the book she so desperately wanted to read – had a score of 620L; she had to have books greater than 700 or her teacher wouldn’t count them at all.  Please let children with high Lexile ranges count some of those lower-scoring books toward their reading assignment (say, an exchange of two non-Lexile books for one Lexile book, not to exceed half the assignment) or perhaps give them extra credit for those books as long as they’re keeping up with the Lexile assignment (if you’re already doing that, bravo!).  These kids are reading because they love reading and they’re already reading outside of school, which is sort of the point of those types of assignments.   I rarely hear of a child being penalized for reading above his or her range so I think there’s a compromise that can be reached for those kids who want to read but have trouble finding books due to age or content.

So bring your Lexile ranges to me and I and my fellow booksellers and librarians will do our best to find what you like to read as well as what you need to read – if we’re very good, that book will fill both requirements.  ‘Tis that sort of season.

6 thoughts on “Lexile: A Bookseller’s Best Friend or Worst Enemy?”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Reading should not be a chore to score. I put my thoughts on the leveling of books in a photo which ran on the ALSC blog yesterday. [http://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2014/08/thoughts-on-the-ccss/]

  2. Hannah, when the Dept of Education in California decided to go all Lexile, around 2000, a vendor (yup!) from Lexile came to “educate” the group of 30 or so librarians, teachers, curriculum coordinators, etc. the Department had assembled to update its Recommended Reading List. I bear the scars of incredulity still. And as a librarian, I have never started a readers advisory session from the Lexile end of things and push back when parents want to go there (after all, for me, the advising is for the kid, not the parent). On the other hand, the Lexile folk seem to have more awareness of reading as an activity of the imagination than do the AR plumpers.

  3. Thank you both for your comments! Working as a teacher or librarian and trying to develop a love of reading in students while working within the framework of leveled reading can be a true challenge. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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