Limitations of Lexile Levels for Global Literature

By Kathy Short, The University of Arizona

The standards movement in the U.S. has placed a great deal of emphasis on Lexile levels as a means of determining the appropriateness of a book for a reader, using Lexiles to determine the complexity of a text. The assumption is that readers at each grade level band need to read books within specific Lexile levels or their reading achievement will be negatively affected. Teachers who do not challenge their students to read books within these bands are viewed as negligent in their teaching of reading and as handicapping students. These assumptions can be challenged from many perspectives, including the lack of research to support this position (Allington, McCuiston, & Billen, 2015). Other issues emerge with a close examination of the actual Lexile levels of exemplar texts and global literature.

Limits of Lexile Levels

The first issue becomes apparent in charting the Lexile levels of the fiction books used by the Common Core as exemplars of a specific complexity is that many of these books fall below the Lexile levels identified for a grade level band.
• The Lexile band for Grades 11-12 is 1185-1385. The fiction exemplar texts identified by Common Core range from 730 (Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway) to 1430 (Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville). In fact, of the 15 exemplar texts identified by Common Core, 11 are below 1185.
• The Lexile band for Grades 9-10 is 1050-1335 but 10 out of 13 fiction exemplar texts fall below those levels with the lowest as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck at 680.
• The Lexile band for Grades 6-8 is 925-1185, with 5 out of 9 fiction exemplars below that level.
• The Lexile band for Grades 4-5 is 740-1010, with 3 out of 10 fiction exemplars below that level.
• The Lexile band for Grades 2-3 is 420-820, with 3 out of 13 fiction exemplars below that level, and 1 above that level band.
• Lexiles are viewed as inappropriate for K-1 fiction texts.

A close examination reveals that Lexile levels often underestimate the actual complexity of fiction, particularly the complex narratives often read in high school, like The Grapes of Wrath, whose Lexile level would place it in the Grade 2-3 band, clearly an inappropriate level given the conceptual density of the ideas and plot. The lower Lexile level for this book results from the reliance on dialogue, which includes more familiar words and short sentences. Many of the classic texts frequently read in high school, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, if measured only by Lexile would fall into Grades 2-3 or 4-5 but are texts with multiple layers of meaning and difficult issues that challenge readers in Grades 11-12.

These same issues are apparent in global literature selected to pair with the exemplar texts. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, has a Lexile level of 580, which would put the book in a Grade 2-3 band. This historical fiction novel is 316 pages long and raises difficult issues of abuse, war and physical disabilities for a child sent from London to the countryside during WWII. While it might be read by a few third graders, it is clearly most appropriate for students in Grades 4-5.

Many of the global books most appropriate for Grades 9-10 or 11-12 were at a lower level than the identified Lexile range, just as occurred with classic texts. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys focuses on refugees fleeing from the advancing Soviet army at the end of WWII. The story is told through multiple voices, greatly increasing the difficulty of the book, but the extensive use of dialogue results in a Lexile level of only 560, way below the actual teen audience for the issues and situations in this book. Of course, none of these levels account for the knowledge brought by the reader to the book; for example, a teen who has read extensively about WWII in comparison to a teen with little experience or interest in history and historical fiction or a reader who is a cultural insider to Eastern Europe.

Lexile levels become even more problematic with novels in verse, often overestimating the complexity of these books due to the careful and dense use of language. Margarita Engle’s verse novels set in Cuba are typically at Lexile levels of 1000-1300 because of the density of the language, not the actual difficulty of the books. Graphic novels for teens often have high levels of complexity that cannot be measured by Lexile levels because their storytelling is through visual image, dialogue and panel arrangement. The increasing availability of high-quality novels in verse and graphic novels on difficult issues for adolescents invites readers into global worlds but their text complexity cannot be measured by formulas. Lexile levels are also of little use in books for emergent readers because there is not enough text on which to base an accurate reading of difficulty. In examining the Lexile levels of hundreds of books for this project, there were more exceptions than there were books for whom these measures seemed accurate.

While the Lexile levels for global fiction are often lower than the actual difficulty of the book for readers, the Lexile levels for global nonfiction are often higher than the actual difficulty. Because informational texts make use of longer sentences and less familiar words, they receive a higher Lexile rating. However, those measures fail to account for the extensive use of photographs, visual images and graphic organizers that support readers in understanding the content. Their actual difficulty is thus much lower than the Lexile level would infer. Tracking Trash by Loree Griffith Burns is successful with Grades 4-5 students but has a Lexile of 1200, putting the book at a Grade 9-10 level. Informational books can usually be used successfully at many grade levels, depending on the context within which they are read. Over and over I found myself marveling at the Lexile level rating and corresponding grade level, viewing the book as appropriate across a wide range of grade levels, depending on the purpose and the focus of the curriculum.

Global literature adds further complexity to measures of text complexity because of the influence of readers’ own global knowledge and culture. Readers familiar with a specific global culture will find books from that culture to be less complex and more easily understandable. Those readers not only bring strong cultural knowledge but also are familiar with that culture’s style of storytelling and text structures. Cultural insiders have familiarity with the events, people, perspectives and values at the heart of these books and so find a book easier than would be indicated by Lexile levels.

Readers from outside that culture will struggle more with that same text. This struggle is important because, in global literature, we want readers to struggle–to recognize that this book cannot easily be fit into their existing perceptions about how people in these cultures think and live. We want readers to stop and reread and to feel discomfort as well as to connect with characters and identify common universal experiences and feelings. A book could be more difficult for a reader than its Lexile level and still be appropriate for that reader.

In addition, quantitative measures of readability fail to identify the influence of a reader’s interest in a book or the ways in which that book is integrated into a unit of study in a classroom. These measures assume that the reading of a text is in isolation from other texts, rarely the case with global literature because teachers know these books need support. When a book is surrounded by reading other texts and a range of experiences, research, and discussion, that book becomes more “readable” and less complex for readers, regardless of Lexile level. The assumption that texts are read independently of each other is based in old models of literary instruction that no longer reflect actual practice in classrooms, especially in elementary classrooms where teachers often embed fiction and nonfiction within rich units of inquiry. In addition, the belief that readers should read only books at one level does not match our practices as readers outside of school and does not support readers in developing the strategies needed to engage with a range of texts.

The obvious question is, given the problematic nature of Lexile levels and grade level bands, why did we create grade level lists of global books and provide Lexile information? We did so for several reasons. We wanted to provide educators with a sense of the book’s difficulty and possible audience, providing a range of information on each book, of which Lexile was only one piece of information. We also recognized that some educators are in school contexts where they are required to use Lexile levels in making decisions.

In creating the globalized CCSS reading lists, we used our knowledge of books, readers and the school curriculum, along with a range of information on the book that included not only Lexile but the length of the book, age of the characters, plot elements, themes and issues. We recognize that educators needed this information to identify possible books for their settings. Because the actual complexity of a book will always vary based on the reader’s interests and experiences, the purpose of reading the book, and the context within which the book is read, the global lists serve as a beginning point for actual instructional decisions. Those decisions can only be made by an educator interacting with readers in a specific context. We invite you to use the lists in ways that best fit your needs and those of your students. (add link to the lists)

Allington, D., McCuiston, K, & Billen, M. (2015). What research says about text complexity and learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 66 (7), 491-501.

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