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Is There a Science to Finding the Right Book?

A tennis racquet has one. So does a baseball bat. Could it be that a beginning reader has a sweet spot, too?

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

The reading sweet spot is that perfect balance between a child's ability and a text's difficulty, that place where a child can skim across the page without realizing she's decoding symbols into ideas and stringing them together to create meaning.

It should be an experience of ease and comprehension.

Over the past several decades many systems have evolved with the goals of measuring the reader and the text. But, how accurate are they?

Readability Measures

Researchers have been working on readability measures since at least the 1940s. In the United States, the measure in the widest use is the Lexile Framework, which has been adopted by book publishers, educational testing companies and state Departments of Education.

The Lexile Framework measures a text by analyzing sentence length and word frequency. Once these factors are determined, they're fed into the Lexile equation and, presto, chango!, we have the Lexile ranking, a number ranging from 200L for beginner texts up to 1700L for advanced ones.

How Is The Lexile Framework Different From Other Measures?

What makes the Lexile Framework unique, and what has led to its widespread adoption, is that it also measures the reader. "Readability formulas have been around for at least 50 years, but no one had ever put the reader and the text on the same scale like we did," says Malbert Smith, president of MetaMetrics, the developer of the Lexile Framework.

"We actually linked with the state tests so that whenever they report out their scores they can also report out a Lexile measure on the student," says Smith. "When we developed the Lexile Framework we really wanted to give something to parents that would be actionable. Parents don't know how to take action on a "stanine" or a "NCE score" or a "percentage rank."

"Once you know your child's Lexile measure, you can come to our Web site, where we have 110,000 books that we've measured. The Lexile database is updated with new titles every month," continues Smith.

How to Find Your Child's Lexile Rank

Lexiles are used in some fashion in every state, although not all students in a state are measured. "In the U.S. there are about 52 to 53 million students in the K-12 space in public schools. About 25 million of those students get a Lexile measure from one of the test publishers," says Smith.

Find out how your state uses The Lexile Framework.

California does things a little differently in that the results of its Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program are mailed to parents with the Lexile measure reported as a "California Reading List Number." A parent can use their child's Reading List Number when referring to a list of leveled books on the California Department of Education Web site.

Criticism of the Lexile Framework

The Lexile Framework has its detractors, such as Stephen Krashen, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Southern California. Krashen asserts that the money states are spending on The Lexile Framework would be better spent on acquiring books for schools and districts with limited financial resources. Teachers and librarians, he says, are already trained to match readers with books and don't need the added nuisance of readability formulas.

Other critics have cited the fact that readability formulas measure only a handful of factors that affect text difficulty. Factors not measured are number and organization of concepts, degree of abstraction of these concepts, length of paragraphs and the complexity of punctuation.

A simplistic way of measuring texts can lead to disconnects with reality. Say, for example, that your child has just devoured The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Eager to cultivate her passion for reading you consult the Lexile database and find that this book clocks in with a Lexile ranking of 940L. The Fellowship of the Ring, another classic of the fantasy genre, would be a good choice, you think. Discovering that it's Lexile ranking is 860L, you happily locate a copy, reasoning that giving her an easier book to read will increase her sense of mastery.

Unfortunately, it won't be long before you, and your daughter, discover that The Fellowship of the Ring is much harder to read than The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. This is an example of what happens when you ask a computer to analyze literature.

The research department at the Lexile Framework responded to our hypothetical situation with this comment, "The Lexile Framework for Reading, as a readability formula, focuses on two features: semantic and syntactic characteristics of the text. A properly 'matched' student will not have trouble with the semantic and syntactic demands of the text. As a readability formula, the Lexile Framework does not take into consideration factors such as developmental appropriateness, conceptual complexity or allegorical demands. For example, that is why the Lexile Framework is not recommended for the measurement of poetry."

A Simpler Way

For parents looking for a simpler way to help their child choose a book, award-winning teacher Jennifer Thompson recommends the "five-finger test." "Have your child open the book to any page," says Thompson, a GreatSchools consultant. "If they find five words that they do not know; the book is too difficult."

A Precision Tool

"If I'm a school nurse and a student comes in complaining of a headache," says Smith, "I can do a very primitive assessment. I can take the back of my hand and put it on his forehead and see if he feels hotter than I feel and I can infer if he has a fever. If I wanted to be more precise, though, I'd take a thermometer and get his temperature."

Although the Lexile Framework claims to be a precise measure of a reader's ability and a text's readability, it is not a panacea. A child's interest and enthusiasm for a subject must also be taken into account.

Smith concurs: "If a child wants to read about basketball and we give him books about soccer, he's not going to read it even though the text is accessible to him and it's at the right level. So you still have to pay attention to interest level. And you still have to pay attention to developmental appropriateness."

The Lexile Framework is simply one more tool in the parent's toolbox.

Comments from readers

"I am a children's librarian, and I find the Lexile system incredibly frustrating. It seems to be based solely on vocabulary and the mechanics of reading. It has no regard for subject matter or comprehension of the meaning of a book. For example, the book 'Lord of the Flies', by William Golding, has a lexile rating of 770. The book 'Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets', by Dav Pilkey, has a rating of 780. Something is wrong here. I'm not saying that Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets is a bad book, but it's not on the same level as Lord of the Flies. Incidentally, there is a book called 'Understanding Lord of the Flies: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents' listed on the Lexile website. It has a rating of 1280. "
"'The Lexile Framework has its detractors, such as Stephen Krashen, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Southern California. Krashen asserts that the money states are spending on The Lexile Framework would be better spent on acquiring books for schools and districts with limited financial resources. Teachers and librarians, he says, are already trained to match readers with books and don't need the added nuisance of readability formulas.' --some teachers have not been trained or trained well on matching readers with books - they just go along with the program for the grade level. Also with budget cuts, librarians are pulling more lunch monitor duty or yard duty then actual hours in the library and some 'librarians' are not actually trained in the library sciences but hired just to check out and reshelve books. "
"Why worry about all this reader stuff ... with 'No Child Left Behind' ... their teachers will just give them an easier and easier version of the required test until they can pass it. Thus producing a graduating class in just a few more years ... THAT CAN'T READ OR COMPREHEND IT IF THEY CAN! My newly PLACED into 5th Grade special needs son can read a 10th grade book ... word for word ... and out loud ... but he has ZERO comprehension of 90% of those very words ... and yet they keep shortening his assignments and PLACING him in the next grade! Well ... this year we are going to suck it up and try it another way ... he's going INTO the 5th grade ... no law requires that I have him in a special needs class ... just that it be available. SOOOO ... I wonder what it's going to do to the TEKS testing scores in his class room when he's melting down on the floor like a 2 year old and won't even bubble in his own name?!?!? I'm betting that the other kids won't be able to do much beyond that either ... so much for their funding based on TEKS test scores ... but it should prove my point. "
"For an example of what is wrong with this computer generated syntactical analysis of literature, look up Doctor Zhivago, a great book (and a popular movie when I was a teen). It is rated for a strong 8th grader reader. I wonder what 8th graders think of the depiction of a girl their age molested by her stepfather, her mother's attempted suicide when she finds out, etc. The love child Lara and Zhivago have is the least of the hard to explain adult situations in this book. Don't recommend a book to a child which you haven't read. Yet schools had out these lists unedited and demand that children read at their level. The high level reader has few choices that are age appropriate - a national problem - but one that the schools ignore when giving out points for having read books. "
"I agree with your assessment that having the Lexile Level is just the beginning. Here's a real example for you. I have a son that just started Second Grade that is good at reading. I was checking some of my books for Lexile levels to use at school and found I had a couple that should be in his range (these would become an addition to his book shelf, if he liked them). He wanted to try the Journey to the Center of the Earth by Becky Cheston based on the Jules Verne novel (which is near the 1000 Lexile level). Becky's book is supposed to be a 340 Lexile level, which would be in range with where he is right now. After two pages he became frustrated and quit because of the readability of the text. If this is how a normal reader reacts to the book, I have to wonder how reading recovery students will react to this book and other ones like it. Knowing that a book is on your reading level and not being able to enjoy reading it is frustrating for readers and parents alike."
"I am a reader. I read stories to 13 different classes at 4 different schools each week and I am familiar with most of your suggestions. I note with interest that you suggest 'Sideways Stories From Wayside school' for the fourth grade but I also note that you suggest, the 3rd book in the series, 'Wayside school gets a Little Stranger' for the 3rd grade. No matter what the grade, I think that it is always a good idea to start at the beginning. By the way, kids LOVE all three books in this series by Sachar."
"How do I find appropriate books for an 8 year old with a reading level of 10+(Accelerated Reader and STAR levels established during the school year) There must be a list for immature readers with very mature reading levels."