Sunday, September 13, 2015

Lexiles and How I handle them; A very long story with some intemperate language

This is from the perspective of a public librarian with no educational background. Really, none at all. My sole school experience was going to a high school to take the SATs and a six month internship in a high school library (where I learned that school librarianship was definitely not for me, but I did enjoy cataloging manga and dictionaries in multiple languages which I did not speak). However, that's another story.

The school district of the public library where I have been working for over seven years heavily uses Scholastic Reading Counts, which is a leveling/quiz system. Kids have to read a certain amount at their "lexile level" and take quizzes to earn points. Some teachers are very strict about kids reading only "at their level" or within about a hundred points either way. Some teachers just want the kids to get the minimum points they need to pass and then read what they want. Sometimes it's the parents who enforce kids reading "at their level."

Your nine year old
doesn't enjoy Thomas
That's what you get
for being a "good"
Lexiles don't take into account content or themes, cultural knowledge or even actual good writing. Scholastic Reading Counts "levels" very few graphic novels and when they do they are always extremely low, no matter the content or complexity of the art. Novels in verse don't show up often either, and naturally they are more likely to include Scholastic titles than other publishers. Some of the inconsistencies and craziness I've encountered:
  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien has a lexile of 1000 but The Fellowship of the Ring is only 860. So a kid with a high lexile can only read the first book in the series.
  • Jim Benton's Dear Dumb Diary has a higher lexile at 1100....but only the first one in the series.
  • Sugar Creek Gang, a soppy religious series I devoured as a child has lexiles in the 1000s....primarily, I think, because it is soooo badly written. Sentences last for whole paragraphs and the author was only familiar in passing with the concept of punctuation.
  • Pam Bachorz' Candor, a teen novel about mind control and cults, is 350. Which sits it next to Judy Blume's beginning chapter series The Pain and the Great One.
  • Dashka Slater's sweet picture book, The Sea Serpent, is 660. Cynthia Leititch Smith's smoldering paranormal romance Eternal is 690.
  • Pamela Duncan Edward's alliterative picture book Princess Pigtoria and the Pea at 770 is higher than the 700 awarded to Amy Efaw's After, a hard-hitting novel about teen pregnancy and infanticide.
You can yell all you want about "but lexiles aren't supposed to be used that way!" The official Lexile page says the levels aren't supposed to correspond to grade level....but I have yet to meet any teacher, parent, or school who didn't use them that way. Personally, I believe the whole thing is one huge money-making scam and also that it enables lazy teaching and parenting. Just hand them a book at their level, no need to "read all the books in the library" (as cheerfully says).

So, I am not a fan of lexiles, or any labeling system. I find them frustrating, limited, and worse than useless. Again, this is just my opinion. I'm not an educator. I'm a librarian whose mission is to encourage kids to read and enjoy reading. I have yet to see any evidence that forcing kids to read only at their lexile level improves reading. I'm not against challenging kids or encouraging them to stretch their reading horizons, improving their reading skills or assessing comprehension. I just don't think a computer-generated assessment of a book has any meaning whatsoever. Especially as someone who has been doing reader's advisory since I was a child, having to take into account some random computer generated statistic just frustrates me to the point of screaming. As I once told a parent at a moment when I had passed all patience, "lexiles are crap".

I had never encountered reading levels before my current job, although I was vaguely familiar with AR, and found it a completely ridiculous system. When I first came there was a printout of all the quizzes owned by the school and books owned by the library, dating from 2007, and I did ask for an update of the list. I was informed that since the school had purchased the entire program they no longer provided the lists (reasonable enough, since that would be literally thousands of titles). I was extremely frustrated that parents and teachers were using this arbitrary system to limit what their children were reading. Constant requests to label all our books and my own determination to do no such thing (thankfully supported by my director, although possibly not to the extent of my own "over my DEAD BODY" declaration) were stressful and I hated that I couldn't convince anyone that this was a ridiculous system. 

Can you see the evil?
However, one day when I had what seemed like an endless stream of lexile questions and altercations, one of my then-aides said "wow, I've never seen you so mad before." After I had spent some time screaming into the pompoms in the back room, I sat down and thought about it. Can I change the curriculum requirements of the school, the way teachers teach, or the way parents parent? No. From my own personal experiences I'm pretty skeptical about changing peoples' minds about anything anyways. Does being frustrated and angry make anything better? Nope. Does arguing with parents and teachers change anything? Nope.

In the end, I'm trying to serve my population the best I can, balancing my own experience and knowledge with what the public wants. It's why I buy Barbie books and Paw Patrol movies, give advice to parents who are worried that their four year olds can't read yet, and do Valentine's Day programs. My own feelings about those things range from disinterest to hostility, but I'm not here to serve my own interests.

Librarians not pictured
So, in 2013, I decided to turn the horrible lexile lists into a useful resource. It would be a compromise between the parents who want all the books labeled and grouped by level and my own desire to see lexiles go down in flames whilst librarians dance around the bonfire.

I started with the 1000+ lexiles, since those were the most urgently needed, especially by younger kids with high lexile levels. I downloaded the entire list from Scholastic Reading Counts (it's about 25 pages in Excel, so you can guess how lengthy it is). First I went through and removed all the titles our library did not own (my obsessive memory for collection development came in useful here) then I removed all the titles that would not be of interest to my main audience, kids in 3rd to 8th grade, then I annotated each title and added the genre, lexile level, and number of points. This took me literally most of a year. It was a huge project. Next I tackled the 900s and did the same thing.

The results: Parents loved it. They could look through the list and find possible reading selections without having to continually carry stacks of books to the desk and ask me to look up their level. I was more relaxed about the whole thing, since I took a more reasonable view of what I could and could not affect. I was still recommending good books to the kids through the annotations and curated list. Parents frequently bring the list up to the desk and ask me to help them pick books from the list that will interest their children, so the list doesn't negate my reader's advisory help. Teachers and school librarians have also gratefully used my list and I have a better rapport with them. I relaxed my evangelistic fervor. While I will still talk to parents if they're receptive, I don't feel the need to aggressively condemn lexiles to every parent who asks for books on their child's level.

Fast forward several years. This year I took the time to update and reformat the 900 and 1000+ lists. I deleted titles we no longer owned and updated the list with new titles. Then I tackled the lower levels. Rather than download the hundreds of pages of lexiles, since those lists are much more extensive, I took our Pinterest boards of recent purchases and ran each title through Scholastic Reading Counts. I created a list for each level from 500 through 800 and a combined list for 400 and below, since those levels are rarely asked for. Of course, as soon as I had practically finished this gargantuan task, I realized it would be a lot easier to search, sort, and format the list if I just...put it in Excel (cue head to desk). So I took an extra few days to start transferring my beautifully formatted lists to Excel. Going forward, I plan to update the lists yearly. This whole thing is very time-intensive, going through the lists, looking up titles, formatting, fighting with the printer, but I do it anyways.

Literacy center
My new associate helped me set up what is going to be our literacy center. Right now it includes the lexile lists and the five finger rule bookmarks my associate created, but eventually we plan to include more parent-friendly literacy information - advocacy for reading comics, for reading aloud to your children, etc.

It's difficult to let go of your own personal feelings (or beliefs or principles, or whatever) but my belief that I'm here to serve my community is stronger than my feeling that lexiles are a horrible thing. Creating annotated lists is a compromise that still allows me to fulfill my purpose of helping kids find great books as well as meeting the needs of my families in the community.


Erin Dinneen said...

Great article, fully on target. At the very least, this should have been a joint project among the assigning teachers, the school librarian and you. Just makes a bit of steam come from my ears. I am a school librarian , btw.

Jennifer said...

Well, I don't really blame the school librarians or most of the teachers (although there are a few that....but anyways) I blame the administration, if I'm going to assign blame for this mess. Anyways, school librarians rock and ours definitely do! They're sticking it out at a difficult time and I am there for them however I can be - I send these lists to teachers and the school librarians and they appreciate them!