With the Common Core Standards working their way into districts and classrooms around the state, there has been a heavy focus on Lexile levels. Unfortunately the focus on Lexile levels has somewhat distracted us from the meaningful use of leveling systems, and narrowed our focus to the actual number instead of the descriptive qualities of a book or student. Lexile levels can be used to describe the level of a book or the reading ability of a student. Let’s explore both of these areas, as we try to refocus on what really matters.
Lexile Level of a Student
Many districts now use assessments, either administered by a teacher or more often via computer, which spit out a Lexile level (or range) for each student. Often this is one of the only assessments used to inform a teacher about the strengths and weaknesses of a reader. This is unfortunate in that it really doesn’t provide the teacher with what the reader needs as far as instruction. It fails to actually describe what the reader does when he reads. It also fails to inform the teacher about the depth of understanding the child has about the topic, and in which areas of comprehension the student is succeeding or struggling.
This really isn’t a new dilemma, the name of the leveling system has simply changed. In the past we may have referred to a child’s reading levels by the Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading Level (A-Z) or the Developmental Reading Achievement (DRA) level (1-80), as well as others. Unfortunately we tend to over-use the actual number or letter assigned to the child, while much less focus is on the behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses of the child. How often have you heard someone (or have you) report that a child was reading at a level D either in conversation with the child, the parents or other teachers?
What IS a “Level D Child” exactly? In my experience I have known a lot of students that were described as Level D readers, yet they were all very different. One might have been really good at using picture clues and could put together what was happening in the story even though she could not read every word accurately. While another “Level D Reader” might be really good at sounding out every word, but was not at all attending to meaning as she read. In fact, I would expect that there are many types of “Level D Readers,” and the fact that they have ‘landed’ at this level really doesn’t tell me anything about them as individual readers!
Lexile Level of a Book
As if labeling students with letters and/or numbers isn’t enough, we often think that books should also be labeled with letters and numbers. Many leveling systems and sites have been set up online and by publishers so that each and every book imaginable can be labeled with the Lexile level or range. In fact, students are often taught to match their personal Lexile number to the Lexile number on the books in classrooms. In doing this, we send the message to students that “these are the books you should read” while also sending the message about exactly which books are ‘off limits’ to them as well.
We also inadvertently send the message to kids that choosing a book to read simply has to do with matching numbers or letters, rather than the more authentic reasons for choosing books. Think about being a reader in real life – hopefully you are one right now – and imagine your day as you go about picking what you read. Is your newspaper labeled with a level? What about the emails you receive? The social media sites you visit regularly? What about the last good book you curled up with? Hmmmm, no labeling system huh? How in the world did you know what you could choose to read? How were you certain you could actually read it?
The fact of the matter is that in real life we don’t label everything with numbers. In fact, adults rarely read anything throughout the day that would likely match the Lexile level that would best describe their reading ability. If this were the case, we would all be reading college textbooks all day, as this might fall in the actual Lexile range at which most of us would ‘test out.’
Imagine you are at the store and want to pick up a magazine about the latest Hollywood gossip, but when you pick up the magazine the store clerk says to you, “Sorry, you can’t read that, it's too easy for you!” You look at the magazine cover and see that it is labeled with a Lexile range of 900-1000, and you know that you are actually reading around a 1300. Sorry, guess you can’t read it because it’s just too easy for you. Sorry if you were interested in the content or really enjoyed reading these magazines in the past. We don’t want to hurt you as a reader by ‘letting’ you read something so easy. Let’s redirect you to the library at the local university so we can find you a nice thick textbook that I am sure you would like just as much, and it will be much better for you as a reader.
Does this sound silly? In the context of real reading as an adult, it certainly does. On the other hand it happens every day in classrooms around the country. We often tell students exactly what they can and can’t read, and use the determining factor of levels attached to both the reader and the text. We choose which books to ‘teach’ at different points in time based primarily on the level. We direct students to only read books that can be found in the book bin assigned to them.
So What Should We Do?
Should teachers just let students choose whatever they want to read whenever they want? Should we never assess a student to find their level? This is not what I am suggesting. I am instead suggesting the following:
1. Stop looking at students as numbers.
Although we can pinpoint the level (or range) of a student, we must get beyond this as a primary label and instead focus more on the strengths, weaknesses and behaviors of a student. Instead of telling a student that he is now reading at around a level 550, let's tell him that we have noticed how many books he has been reading lately, how he is doing really well at summarizing what he reads, and has a great toolbox of strategies for solving reading issues.
2. Stop conditioning students to look solely at level when choosing books.
It is nice to know what level a book falls within, but is it really necessary? Have you ever been to a local library? Do they label all of their books? How in the world do you decide what to check out, what you can read? There are in fact a lot of ways that adults choose what they want to read, and we learned this by doing it our entire life! Yet in the present, we are continuously conditioning students to pick books based on a number. I wonder if someday we might have to label books at the local library so that these students can in fact choose a book? It is crucial that we consider and act on the alternative to this scenario, and start to re-focus on the other ways readers choose books. We should start to regularly ask: What interests you? What topics are you researching? What types of texts do you enjoy? Which books have your peers recommended?
An Appropriate Use of Levels
Knowing the reading levels of both your students and the books you choose for instruction is important. It allows the teacher to make adjustments within instruction. For example, the trade book you chose for the upcoming science concept is appropriate for most of your students (not too hard), but you have three students for whom it will likely be a bit too difficult to read independently. Knowing the level of your text and your readers assists you in choosing the amount and type of scaffolding that will need provided. One such scaffold you may choose in this instance is to provide some support before reading in regard to some of the vocabulary concepts and terms used.
In fact, this type of pre-reading support wouldn’t hurt the rest of the class, so you could plan to provide this type of instruction to all of your students! As well, you could plan to discuss how the glossary provides the reader assistance with content-specific vocabulary, and how the diagram at the beginning shows the reader exactly what the author is going to describe in more detail.
Do you see how the knowledge of the students’ levels and the level of the texts being used assisted the teacher in making instructional adjustments? In this scenario the students didn’t need to know their level and they didn’t need to know the level of the book. This information was instead used by the teacher, for teaching. This is an appropriate use of levels.
The Common Core’s Stance on Levels
The Common Core Standards include several blurbs about text complexity. And indeed there is a focus on more than simply looking at the Lexile level of a text. In fact, the following can be found in the standards report,
“At a curricular or instructional level, within and across grade levels, texts need to be selected around topics or themes that generate knowledge and allow students to study those topics or themes in depth.” (Common Core Standards site)
No mention of choosing books based solely on Lexiles here! To think that one might want to choose a book based on the topic found inside!
In addition, Appendix A of the standards takes an in-depth look at all of the qualities a teacher must consider when choosing books for students, ones that go beyond levels. But it seems that this other information is being overshadowed and sometimes even ignored, as the heavy focus on Lexiles have been taking over the spotlight.
Let’s bring back a focus on using Lexiles (or any other reading level for that matter) in a responsible manner, while never losing sight of the real reason teachers need them.