Thursday, November 08, 2012

Readability Measures and Libraries: An Unsolicited Rant

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a friend, for whom I had run long-distance reader's advisory. She was looking for a historical fiction book for her 4th grader to write a book report. Her fourth grader is an avid reader and so I knew I could have fun with it. I gave her about ten titles, from Gordon Korman's Titanic series to Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

She got back to me and said that based on their AR established book levels, and since he tested at a 6th grade level on his readability test, he actually is not allowed to choose any of the suggestions I gave for his book report. Including two Newbery award winning contemporary classics; one of which was Bud, Not Buddy, which should probably be read by all 4th grade boys everywhere. The aforementioned Gantos title even has a copy housed in the teen section of our library. But no matter; its book level comes in at a lowly 5.9.

This kind of stuff just really gets to me. First of all, it would stand to reason that a child would do better on a book report if he/she were writing it on a book slightly below their readability level, freeing up their brain juice from literal comprehension so they can think more critically about what they are reading. This would actually help develop and practice higher order thinking skills, like, you know, the Common Core Standards want to.

Also, Lexile ratings are labeled for 75% comprehension rate. This is fine for books to read with a class, but for leisure reading or reading on your own in any capacity, it doesn't even pass the 5 Finger Rule, and every child knows that means it's not a "Just Right Book". The Five Finger Rule, by the way, norms to 85-90% comprehension rate. So any librarians using that, go you!
I mean, we have to have a hashtag.

Secondly, and I cannot emphasize enough: yes, readability measures have a formula. EVEN THOUGH THERE IS MATH, THEY ARE STILL COMPLETELY ARBITRARY. The only reason one type is used over another is for ease of use and possibly funding at some level (I'm not one for starting anything, but it is more than interesting to me that the Lexile rating system saw a resurgence nationally just after funding to No Child Left Behind was unceremoniously cut in 2007). Here's a paper from the National Center for Educational Studies in 2001 expressing a variety of concerns about the rating system.

Just for kicks, I decided to create my own sentence for Lexiling purposes. You can type your own into a txt file and submit at the Lexile website.

Sentence: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
Result: 650L, which is widely considered to be around a 3rd grade level (the owners of, MetaMetrics, say many times that Lexile were never intended for grade-level equivalency, but feel free to access this handy grade equivalency chart that they provide on their website anyway).

Sentence: The quick brown fox, please jump over the lazy dog; it is important.
Result: 370L, or a 1st grade reading level.

Sentence: The quick brown fox, please jump over the lazy dog, or the extremely angry robot will find you and kill your family.
Result: 1270L, or a tenth grade level. Coincidentally, this sentence has the same Lexile level as a student loan application. Probably because they both mention finding you and killing your family if you don't comply.

So what can public librarians do?
That is a great question and I don't know a definitive answer to it. Here are a few things I'm going to try, though:
1. Be a book buddy to every kid. Make sure they're reading something they want to read. Forcing to kids to read at their reading level or it doesn't count places a higher expectation on children that it does on reading adults. If a family comes in looking for a school book, make sure to recommend one more without looking at the readability. Don't refuse to look up the readability, though, because that's punishing the kids and parents; it's not their fault, NOR the teachers', NOR the administration's. Readability is emphasized as part of this new initiative because it's the easiest to implement automatically.

2. Promote low-level, high interest books, as well as checking out audio books to help comprehension. What will count most on these tests for which everyone is using readability as a misguided preparation tactic is the amount of critical thinking one will be able to do, based mostly on Webb's Depth of Knowledge. The best way us public librarians can help kids is to let them read things their brains can actually think deeply about, as well as help them see and hear new words by checking out book+audio in tandem. Readability doesn't matter as much as this.

3. Continue to Provide a Lexile-Free Summer Reading Program. According to this study,  using Lexile levels to inform a child's independent, non-interventioned (I swear that's a word, red line!) reading over the summer will not affect that child's reading achievement.  Kids come to the public library in the summer to have fun and avoid the Brain Drain by reading what they want to read. All that matters is that the kids are active readers over the summer, no matter what or how they read. Maybe throw in a few cluster displays for good measure. Lexiles will: at best, do nothing; but worse, we might contribute to a brewing indifference to reading.

You know, My entire career I've been chasing Illiteracy and Indifference to Reading across this country. And it never ceases to amaze me how those two villains can take perfectly well-written and well-intended literacy initiatives and use them for their benefit.
Just keep fighting.


  1. Fight the power! My library system is also battling the great AR/Reading Counts/Lexile level (sometimes all at once). Unfortunately, I have found that no matter the coaxing from the wise librarian, if it does not meet the be-all, end-all school standards, then it's a no go. We have got to figure out how to reach the schools, as well. How can we get teachers to realize that just because some company created a level, doesn't mean that the book is actually appropriate for the student? Ideas?

  2. I think that needs to come from the Professional Development about the standards; it's there but not emphasized enough. For instance, when I worked at an institution with grants from NCLB, it took us until 2008 to begin creating a product that shows: "All right, these skills are being tested, and we PROMISE the skills are taught in your curriculum multiple times before the test. Here, we're show you exactly what month and why you should not teach these skills out of order for the test." I do think that some teachers realize the silliness of reading measures, but they're getting it from much higher, from a place that may be in the pocket of a company even; anyway, I'm not sure that's something we can help as librarians. It is a much larger issue than us. I'm just happy we can be on the front line, telling the kids themselves about awesome books.

  3. This post (like basically all of what you write) really fired me up to keep fighting the good fight for Reading Good Books. I had a very intelligent young man (probably in 4th grade) tell me his precise reading grade level the other day and I felt like it put me under serious pressure to help him choose The Right Book to meet these arbitrary standards. Suddenly it wasn't about what he liked or wanted to read, but what the powers that be would let him read. If librarians band together maybe we can make our voices heard when it comes to education standards, but I don't have very high hopes. We'll just have to keep running our underground railroad of book buddies and make as much difference in as many lives as possible.

  4. Emily, thank you so much for reading my blog. I can't tell you how awesome it feels to hear that I fire you up about literacy! I totally agree with you, and I love the imagery of the "underground railroad"... At the PD-writing level we used to call the school/library world "the trenches"-- and it's definitely the place to be!

  5. Our school district extended Reading Counts to middle school and high school this year and one of our two parochial schools has recently embraced with wild enthusiasm and matching ignorance the concept of lexiles. My private resistance is to arbitrarily slap colored stickers on the easy readers and then tell parents "red is level 1, green is level 2, blue is level 3, black is level 4". When really they're all over the place, depending on the publisher. Parents feel like their kids are "reading at the right level" and kids get to try different things.