FacebookTwitterPinterestGoogle+Other Sharing

Say No to Lexiles and Reading Levels

This is my anti-lexile, anti-reading level post. I get it. Well-intentioned parents want to challenge their children. Well-meaning teachers want to be sure that students are advancing in their reading levels. Maybe this is okay in first or second grade (although some commenters of this post argue that even this isn’t okay). Beyond these beginning grade levels, let’s stop this madness. We can do better. We cannot calculate the complexity of a text using a mathematical equation.

A few words from Mike Mullin, author of Ashfall: “Try taking this comment, and running it through the Lexile analyzer. Then replace every other period in this comment with ‘and,’ and run it again. The problem will be instantly apparent–the Lexile level will change by 400 – 600 points. You cannot accurately quantify something as complex as reading with simplistic sentence and word counts that fail to take into account the most important variable: the child” (Posted to http://mikemullin.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-lexiles-harm-students.html).

So why do we use Lexiles for older kids? Perhaps it is based on fear. We worry we aren’t challenging our students, so the Lexile numbers give us the confidence and assurance to move forward. It appeases the nagging worry that maybe we aren’t challenging our children enough. Because if the number/letter on the child’s book is higher than the number/letter on the last book s/he read, I am doing my job as a parent, as an educator, as an administrator, right?

Even worse, some parents/teachers make students internalize levels. A child will tell me, “I am a G reader.” How does this G reader feel when s/he is surrounded by J reader peers? What does this do for reader confidence? If we must use reading levels, let’s tell kids that they are reading G books and aren’t G readers.


(A great graphic from Unshelved)

I cringe when I hear about parents or teachers who strictly adhere to reading levels alone and won’t let children read books that are “too high/low in their Lexile number.” I watched a mother tell her son that he couldn’t get the train book that he wanted so badly because the number on the back cover was too high for him. He was disappointed, and he was even more disappointed when his mom selected a book that was not interesting to him. It really sucks the fun out of reading when you have to pick a book within your required sentence length instead of within your interests.

Unshelved 2(Another great graphic from Unshelved. They really nail this topic, don’t they?)


Let’s take a look at the Lexile Bands by grade level:

Grade             Lexile Band – Text Demand Study 2009

6                        860L to 920L

7                        880L to 960L

8                        900L to 1010L

9                       960L to 1110L

10                    920L to 1120L

11 and 12       1070L to 1220L

(from the Common Core State Standards for English, Language Arts, Appendix A [Additional Information], NGA and CCSSO, 2012)


When we look at the Lexile levels of books, many of the typical texts taught in these grades meet these standards. But so many don’t, and this is quite problematic. If we take Lexiles as fact, these are the grades we should be teaching the following texts (Lexiles are in parentheses):

2nd Grade

  • Night – Wiesel (570)

3rd Grade

  • The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway (610)
  • Twisted – Anderson (680)
  • Incarceron – Fisher (600)

4th Grade

  • Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck (680)
  • The Color Purple – Walker (670)

5th Grade

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls – Hemingway (840)
  • Kite Runner – Hosseini (840)
  • A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway (730)
  • Cat’s Cradle – Vonnegut (790)

6th Grade

  • As I Lay Dying – Faulkner (870)
  • The Sound and the Fury – Faulkner (870)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Lee (870)
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Bradbury (890)

7th Grade

  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Foer (940)

8th Grade

  • Les Miserables – Hugo (990)
  • Huck Finn – Twain (990)

9th Grade

  • Harry Potter Half-Blood Prince – Rowling (1030)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Kinney (1060)


We cannot assign a number to a book. Further, we cannot assign a book to a number. But the Common Core says we should. No, actually, it doesn’t. Direct quote from the Common Core: “The following text samples primarily serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with. Additionally, they are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in the text types required by the Standards. The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list.” The CCSS actually remind us to look at quantitative, qualitative, and reader/task aspects. (See page 8, Appendix A of the CCSS for a gold mine of reasons we shouldn’t rely solely on these quantitative measures.) So why do so many people think that complexity and quality can only be measured with this quantitative measure? Perhaps this is due to the emphasis on numbers and standardized testing.

Many of the readers of this blog are avid readers themselves. They understand the problematic nature of Lexiles (or other quantitative measures). But others might react with, “Well, if I can’t use these numbers, what do I use?”


How do we challenge readers?

To start, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of Teri Lesesne’s Reading Ladders. She uses reading ladders in ways that address complexity without numbers. She writes, “Reading levels and Lexiles are not the way to determine the rigor of a text. Instead, rigor should be determined by sophistication of thought, depth of character development, stylistic choices, and mastery of language on the part of the author. These are present in the best of YA literature” (p. 6). In her book, Lesesne shows us how we can be better and do better than reading levels.

The key to knowing how to challenge our students/children is to read, read, read. This allows us to make recommendations when they finish books. If you don’t have the time to read or this feels outside of your field of study, ask someone who does read widely. There are many bloggers, teachers, librarians, and parents who read widely and are very willing to give recommendations if you can provide reading background and interests of the student.

Head to the library or bookstore. Have your child pick a book based on interest. Open the book and read the first page together. (This can be done online by opening up the preview/”look inside” pages of a book, too.) Ask the child if it feels too difficult to the point that it is frustrating. We want to challenge our children, but we don’t want them to dislike reading because it feels much too difficult. If the book is too easy for the child, ask yourself, “Will this be harmful?” I am a parent, and while my son is still a toddler, I picture him in elementary school. If he reads thirty books below his “reading level,” is this a bad thing? If these books propel him to read thirty more books (some above and some below) his reading level, I think this is quite all right. I want to feed his hunger to read. And telling him that he is a level 320 reader or even that he is reading a level 320 book is going to do nothing but make reading feel foreign, scientific, and boring. Let’s teach kids to read critically and be critical of these levels.



45 Responses to This is my Anti-Lexile, Anti-Reading Level Post.

  1. Janie says:

    Amen!! I couldn’t agree with you more. Great post!! If only people would realize – it seems like common sense. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Linda Baie says:

    I took my grandson (a few years ago) to his book fair to purchase some books with him. He chose a few, & then we went back to his classroom to get his things, where I met his teacher. She took a look at the books he had chosen, and was excited about, and said, “Oh, I think these are too hard for you. You need to choose ones more at your level.” She didn’t know that I was a teacher, and I didn’t tell her. I almost hit her, but I didn’t do that either. She was the one who pretty much stopped his excitement about reading. This was 4th grade. I love what you’ve said here, Ricki, wish that teachers would just help students love to read. Enough said, I’m still upset about it obviously.

  3. Juanita Brewer says:

    I believe everyone should read. It should start with parent reading to their unborn children i the womb. Reading is essential to overall success in life. However, not children have parents or adults who will read to them. I like the number system. We all need a place to begin. I remember family stories, see spot run and Anne frank in high school. But my favorite story was about a boy who participates in the Revolutionary War of Independence for the USA. He looses an arm and the Disney movie of the story does not do it justice. More importartly I had two parents- one with a six grade education and the other who got her GED 25 years after my birth- who encouraged. So I read by the number system with advice of my parents and teachers.

  4. We had an interesting issue with my son a few years ago – the school didn’t have any books in the library at his lexile level!! His score was too high and the teacher didn’t know what to give him to read… so we just went to the local library and let him read whatever he wanted 😉

  5. Brenda says:

    This is an area that makes me very sad. So much of what children read in school are things that they wouldn’t pick to read themselves, although I know it’s often necessary. But, I’m all about giving them choices in what they get to read for leisure. I’d also love to due away with reading logs, I think it sucks the fun of reading just for fun.

    • I am not sure it is entirely necessary. I think we can find good books that are challenging and interesting to kids! I know some people would disagree with me.

      I was just talking about reading logs with teachers today! We agreed that they can be used to casually track reading progress, but the signing off on reading logs needs to go away. It just forces kids and parents to lie! There are better ways to track progress, I think. 🙂

      • Heather says:

        I realized the negative power of reading logs when I taught 3rd grade and one of my students (a teacher’s kid) stopped reading as much at night because my homework requirements had been to read 20 minutes each evening. Whereas she had been reading for hours, the homework reading log made it work, and she changed to only reading for 20 minutes. Sometimes our need for control as teachers can put barriers up and fence kids in when all they need to do is run…

        • This makes complete sense. I battled with this internally when I taught. I think we also need to respect that we all get in reading ruts. There are some days I don’t feel like reading. Having an assigned twenty minutes on those days wouldn’t respect the natural highs and lows of reading identities.

  6. Ali says:

    I do agree with this. But would also like to say that finding a book “in their level” may result in finding a new interest. My granddaughter would never have read a Harry Potter book if her teacher hadn’t made her. Now she’s read them all and will read fantasy along with the animal stories. One consideration though is that she was in the third grade, not the ninth as the Lexile level suggests.

    • I completely understand your argument, but I don’t think the Lexile played a role in that recommendation, due to its rank at the 9th grade. I suspect the teacher recommended it to your granddaughter because she thought that it might be a new interest for her. Like you, I believe in encouraging students to read outside of their typical interests, and book levels seem to be a separate factor. It sounds like she is an avid reader, which is wonderful!

  7. I really loved this post. It totally rings true. I returned to the classroom after 11 years of a district literacy coach. I have enjoyed seeing my student go bonkers over reading. I can’t keep up with them.They choose what they want to read. In my district, DRA reigns supreme. There is so much more to reading and readers than these levels and timing their oral reading. Reading this confirmed what I see everyday in my classroom. Just let them read and discover their interests. I can’t keep a book in my hand where they won’t ask to borrow. Thanks for this post.

  8. Julie says:

    LOVE what you said! I could not agree more. I am a ‘free range’ librarian…my kids are free to explore any range of books! Thank you for your words.

  9. Glenda says:

    As a librarian, I have fought for years against leveling books. I was supported my District years ago against AR, but my job as a librarian was shifted to support classroom curriculum instead of supporting reading enjoyment, reference process, and library skills. Now a new deputy superintendent, whose old District used a Lexile based reading program, is spending money on a program that is lexile leveled. While library books are hardly given any budget money, tens of thousands is being spent on lexile leveled ereader titles for this program. Young teachers have been data driven right into relying upon numbers to establish appropriate reading materials for students. Administrators have joined the reformers to distrust teacher’ acquired skill at fitting books to each student and instead force them to quantify and qualify by numbers instead of by a combination of decoding ability AND interest. Vendors are glad to build preview boxes, selections, and lists created by simple leveled formulas. The skills that teachers built by learning how to “fit” a book to a student and teaching students to self-select challenging and intetesting reading material is being prostituted to paying publishers for poorly written formulaic books dressed up with attractive level numbers. It is a disservice to our students that ultimately destroys their confidence in becoming independant readers.

  10. Stephen Scott says:

    LOVE this!! As a teacher, it pains me to use this system, and have kids read within their lexile range. It makes me much more aware of what the kids are reading. INTEREST should be a guiding factor, and then students and teachers can narrow down books from there. Someone wrote that it might be a good starting point, and I can agree with that, but it should not be the only factor. Quantifying “reading levels” is something I’ve always struggled with.

    To make an analogy, I use dance moves. I’m not a dancer, nor dance instructor, and am quite bad at dancing. Nonetheless, I think students just need certain instructions on the “dance” of reading, and they don’t have all of the “moves” down– some might, but most fall in between. We need to give kids books that allow them to find the right “dance” that works for themselves, but is also emotionally, academically, and cognitively engaging.

    • This is a wonderful analogy—one that I might borrow (but credit you!). This is a broken system, and the more we can direct folks to be critical of it, the more they won’t rely on it, as you said. Thanks for sharing your analogy!

  11. Ricki – Great post. Another example I typically use is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel coming in at 1060 Lexile or a 9th grade level. Sadly, I think some teachers want something easy – just tell me a number or letter so I can match kids and not actually have to read books. I am tabbing this post to come back to. Thank you.

  12. Readability formulas are used to sell books to schools and give a false sense of control. The work by John Bormouth has shown that there are so many variables in readbaility, that these simplistic formulas are silly.

    We know that sentence length is a variable. However, sentence clause structure provides a confound. For example, a simple sentence, such as “I like pumpkin pie” should be easiest to make meaning of, if the reader has prior knowledge of the utterance.

    A compound sentence is composed of at least two independent clauses. It does not require a dependent clause. The clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction (with or without a comma:

    “I started on time, but I arrived late.”

    this is also fairly easy with background knowledge.

    A Complex sentence has one or more Dependent clauses (also called subordinate clauses). Since a dependent clause cannot stand on its own as a sentence, complex sentences must also have at least one independent clause.

    “Let him who has been deceived complain.”

    what makes this more difficult, even though the compound sentence is longer is that the restrictive relative clause who has been deceived specifies or defines the meaning of him in the independent clause, Let him complain. There is more difficulty in resolving the clause structure for meaning. So sentence length, or word length is not a good metric for readability.

    Try this one:

    To be, or not to be.

    short, but maybe the hardest idea in the English language.

    Readability formulas simplify the reading experience, but they are not reliable. They don’t measure what they say they measure. Don’t even get me started on time shifts and anaphor resolution.

    Readability is snake oil.

  13. I found this article via Buffy Hamilton’s wall and I must say you are 100% RIGHT! Former librarian here and now writer (kids lit and romance). Good for you and THANK YOU, ma’am. I shared it on Linked-In, my writer pages, and you rock!

    Have a great weekend! I dedicate the song REBEL REBEL to you! Love it!

    • Thank you for this lovely, encouraging comment! I am very appreciative that you shared the post! I love the song dedication, too. I try to rebel only when it is important. This makes it more meaningful, right? 🙂

      Enjoy your day!

  14. Sally Gould says:

    Great post. My mom was a librarian in a large public library downtown. When I was a little girl in elementary and middle school, if I was all caught up in school work,she would let me skip school and go to work with her. I could spend all day reading any book I wanted. There were never restrictions on books that were ‘beyond’ my grade level. My father was a physician. When we asked questions about the body or medicine, he would bring home primary research articles. My mother would often read young adult novels (Madeline L’Engle, E.L. Konigsburg,Scott O’Dell, Lloyd Alexander, Ursula LeGuin, and more!) and we would have wonderful talks about our shared reads. Those days were some of the most treasured memories I have. Reading exploration should have no boundaries.

    • This comment feels as if it is right out of a book. This sounds like a wonderful childhood. I try to raise my son with similar experiences. I hope he will treasure them as you have!

  15. Lisa says:

    Thanks for your very thoughtful post! As a second grade teacher, this leveling madness is not ok for first and second grade readers either. As we strive to develop ultimate book love in our youngest readers, the danger in attaching a letter or number to a student or book sends a strong message. Why are second graders taking the SRI?

    • I am very glad for your comment. I agree with you, but because first and second grade is outside of my expertise, I try not to speak for this crowd. I am actually glad to read your comment because it makes good sense to me. I adjusted the post to reflect your comments!

  16. language arts teacher says:

    You cringe when you hear about teachers who adhere to reading levels. I cringe when I hear about teachers/parents/media specialists who say reading levels don’t matter.

    • I wish you’d leave your name, so I could address you properly. I approved your comment to prove that I certainly respect other opinions, but I wish you’d written more. In the article, I actually don’t say they don’t matter at all–I say that they are one of many, many factors that need to be considered. I think other factors are much more significant when we consider how important it is to build reader confidence and foster a love of reading. My argument within this post is that we can be MORE than reading levels. I recommend trying it. You might be surprised at how well it turns out!

  17. Thanks so much for this post. I am guilty of wanting younger readers to take out at least one book that they can read, or become a reader with. I have trained my library monitors to help the K’s and 1’s to find interesting titles that fit this criteria. They do a pretty good job of selling kids these kinds of books, because they often refer to their own favorites. But if a K wants to take out another text (like a minecraft book – these are very popular with nearly all ages) then that is ok too. What bothers me as much as this is when teachers claim a book is too easy for a reader, or as one teacher in our school does, bans graphic novels from her classroom.

    • It sounds like you use levels thoughtfully. Even though others in the comments section have argued that First and second grade don’t need levels either, I don’t pretend to specialize in those age levels. I think the trouble is the strong adherence to reading levels.

  18. Hi there, Ricki. I read this post with avid interest mainly because we have the same mind on so many things. I have actually written something very very similar a few years back on Accelerated Reader (the AR program). Here is the link, just in case you might be interested to check it out:

  19. Francesca says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post! I’m a PK-8 school librarian and, aside with the concerns that have already been raised about leveled reading programs, I’d like to add that many of the text sets that are packaged and promoted by publishers fall short from a multicultural/inclusivity vantage point. If school systems are solely purchasing these products, and teachers are not looking beyond them, there are many voices missing from students’ reading experiences.

  20. Ashley P. says:

    I cannot agree strongly enough! There is so much to be said for children having the opportunity to passionately pursue reading, and their interest cannot and should not be defined by a number or formula.

  21. Kitrona says:

    I actually just encountered this the other day. I took my son to the library, and was trying to find a place to start helping him find books he’d read. (He loves reading, which is good, but I don’t want him to be bored.) The librarian, who was super helpful, showed me how to look up books by reading level… but my son just picked out books that were interesting to him, regardless of reading level. I’m perfectly ok with that. I’d rather have him reading things that interest him, regardless of reading level, than not have him reading because the books at his reading level aren’t interesting to him. We ended up with about 18 books between us!

  22. Pam Orrill says:

    This is so interesting. I think children should read anything & everything they can get their hands on, of course age appropriate. Thanks from a concerned Gma.

  23. […] Ginsberg explains what’s wrong with Lexiles and reading levels in a powerfully persuasive post (comments are interesting […]

  24. Michelle Edrington says:

    My ESE students in 4th and 5th grades do NOT want to read about Fluffy the Dog, even if it is at their lexile level. They want to be challenged and excited, and actually learn while reading. Historical fiction has them mesmerized, so much background information included with all the vocabulary and comprehension pieces that go along with fiction!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *