It used to be that choosing an appropriate text for a reader or a group of readers meant visiting your classroom, school or community library, depending on your setup and access. It meant scouring the shelves and pulling something that seemed engaging and readable for your target audience. It was an art. This process has changed, and it’s important that we engage in meaningful conversations around it. In the era of accountability, many of us are being asked to provide evidence proving the validity of our text choices.
For many teachers, the Common Core State Standards have brought about an increased level of anxiety around choosing appropriate texts in schools. Appendix A of the new English language standards is a lengthy document which goes into detail about text complexity, which we all know the common core aims to raise. Many teachers and administrators go straight to the Lexile correlation chart. Why? Well, once you understand the system, it’s quantitative and rather quick to use for texts that are already attached to Lexile levels. In other words, it gives you a definitive number that is correlated with the appropriateness of a text for each grade level.
“It is important to note that the Lexile measure of a book refers to its text difficulty only. A Lexile measure does not address the content or quality of the book.” —Lexile Website
Teachers and administrators are often overwhelmed. That could be the reason why many skip over the quote above, taken directly from Lexile’s website. In addition to their Lexile-Grade correlation chart, Lexile also offers a chart called Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands that is aligned with the new, increased Lexile levels for each grade band. The danger comes when we use these charts as a singular entity and forget that it is only one component of the equation we must use when choosing appropriate texts for our readers.
I’m no advanced mathematician, but I know that the equation for text appropriateness is a unique combination of text complexity, topic interest and life experience. When we take topic interest and life experience out of the equation, we are left with a numeric level that doesn’t take into account other major elements that we know support student growth in literacy.
There are quite a few tech tools out there who are offering “sortability” features including Lexile ranges, which can be very helpful when utilized correctly. It is tempting to use this feature as a stand-alone measure for text appropriateness because of its “automaticity” and the time it saves us. But we can’t! The teacher still has an important role when using an automated system to find a text that falls within an appropriate range of text complexity. The teacher must pre-read to check for things like content, the character’s ages, language, and complexity of domain-specific vocabulary. This can be time consuming, but if it is not taken seriously, here is what can happen.
Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands taken directly from Lexile’s website
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Lexile: 380)
The range for grade band 2-3 is 420-820. A Lexile of 380 falls below that, meaning that this is targeted at somewhere between K-1. Notice that it’s tagged for ages “3 and up.”
Furthermore, when you trace this text back to the publishers site, the publisher tags it with an interest level of grades 5-9 and a reading level of grades 2-3. This publisher knows about how children read and has taken the imperfections of the Lexile system into account when guiding educators towards appropriate texts. They take into account high-interest, low-level texts for struggling readers and they know that this text is designed for older readers.
You will notice that the Lexile is not a perfect predictor of appropriateness in this case, and this is not the only text with this problem. Not to mention the growing collection of high-interest, low-level texts that are becoming available, which Lexile codes as HL (high-low) on their “Find a Book” system.
Whether deciding on a whole-group text, a variety of small group texts, or guiding a reader towards a “just right” text for independent reading, choosing the appropriateness of a text is an art. We must always consider a careful balance of elements.
Marisa Kaplan (@EdGeeks) is a special-education teacher and literacy coach in New York City. She has a master’s degree in learning disabilities and has taught in settings from early childhood to middle school. She writes a blog, EdGeeks, consults with local education technology startups and frequents educational meet-ups and conferences in the New York City area.