In a recent New Republic essay on the new Common Core reading standards, University of Iowa English professor Blaine Greteman complained that the Common Core’s method of deciding text complexity — the Lexile score — is making a mockery of learning to read by assigning books a “complexity score” between 0-1600, based mostly on vocabulary words and sentence length.
Under this new standard of judging a book, said Greteman, Huckleberry Finn becomes too easy for high schoolers, and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral scores in about the same range as Curious George Gets a Medal. “Few would oppose giving teachers better tools to challenge students, but this approach seems badly flawed,” Greteman wrote. “Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.”
According to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards website, however, the Lexile isn’t the only measure of reading difficulty; the standard for measuring text complexity is measured in three ways: the quantitative evaluation (the Lexile score), the quantitative (levels of meaning, structure, and clarity), and “matching reader to text and task” (motivation, knowledge and experiences). In this way, defining text complexity for students is actually a little more complex than just assigning it a score: for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (score: 870L) may fall in the fifth-grade-range for its word choice and syntax, but the subject matter makes it a poor choice for 11-year-olds.
But many teachers have yet to begin assigning harder, Common Core-approved books, and the reasons why are unclear. According to a recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute report, a survey of teachers shows that, while many are aware of Common Core’s requirement for assigning harder books, few have yet to implement the changes because they are more focused on reading skills. “An astonishing 73 percent of elementary school teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text,” researchers wrote, “high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.”
Reading skills do matter, said Teach Like a Champion’s Doug Lemov, but so do the books teachers choose to read. Lemov said he’s “passionate” about the details of text complexity and selection, and thinks educators and leaders should come together and spend more time building and managing a canon of appropriately complex books for students to read. “The fact that we mostly don’t manage text selection, or provide guidance on or think much about what complexity means, suggests that we don’t think what texts we choose matters all that much, whether we want to admit that to ourselves or not,” he said.
Lemov sees the Lexile as part of a necessary step toward getting educators to teach harder texts — even if the way books are measured is flawed and incomplete. “You know that old saying about accountants?” said Lemov. “They’d rather be exactly wrong than generally right.” Lemov said that measuring books by vocabulary and sentence length doesn’t account for all the ways that texts can be challenging for students, and suggested a more holistic look at how educators and leaders choose and assign books under the new standards – what he calls The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader. His list of textual qualities to consider goes above and beyond vocabulary and sentences, and includes archaic language, non-linear time sequences, unreliable or complex narrators, figurative or symbolic text, and resistant text, which makes the reader work to uncover its meaning.
To give an example of the gap between a Lexile score and the Five Plagues approach, Lemov took a few of his favorite middle school books to teach, and plotted them on a graph alongside the target Lexile range according to the Common Core exemplar books for middle school. “The circles represent the Common Core sweet spot,” for each grade, he said.
(Graph above is from Lemov’s forthcoming book, as of yet untitled, along with Erica Woolay and Colleen Driggs.)
“It’s not just that some of our favorite books don’t measure up on the Lexile scale,” Lemov wrote in an accompanying blog post, “but that often those very same books are the ones we think are eminently rigorous. And they sometimes scored lower than ones we think of as less rigorous.”
For example, two favorites, Lord of the Flies (770L) and The Outsiders (750L), are textual cousins according to Lexile, and both come in lower than the target complexity for grades seven and eight. But Lemov said anyone who has read Lord of the Flies knows that’s not true. “Lord of the Flies is hard, and significantly harder [than The Outsiders], significantly more complex,” said Lemov. “Anyone who has read that book knows how hard it is. It has archaic language, it’s full of allusions to different worlds, they use British English.”
Lemov appears to view the Lexile scores for student texts as a small part of a much larger conversation teachers need to be having about the books they teach and why. And he and his team of teacher-researchers encourage educators and school leaders to intentionally manage text selection to ensure they’re maximizing the different kinds of complexity, making sure kids get exposed to all the different ways books can be challenging.
“It’s too important to let it happen by accident,” he said. “Our argument is, you have to systematically expose kids [to different kinds of text]. If you’ve never read archaic text, or language that’s 150 years old, when you get to college, and someone hands you The Faerie Queene, you’re dead.”