Are Children Reading the Wrong Books in School?

Are Children Reading the Wrong Books-MainPhotoLast week my 12 year-old stepdaughter asked me to help her pick out a historical fiction book for a school assignment. I helped her find a few options, but it wasn’t easy. Historical fiction has quite a broad definition. Many novels are set during important moments in history and could be classified as historical fiction, while others are heavily-researched, fictionalized accounts of real events. So The March, by E.L. Doctorow, or Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell—two very different books—are technically both historical fiction about the Civil War.

My stepdaughter was interested in The Comedians by Graham Greene because she is interested in Haiti. The Comedians was written in 1966 and is about the dictatorship of François Duvalier. I told her I didn’t believe it would qualify as typical historical fiction, so I gave her some different options: I thought she might like Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls—about the Spanish Civil War—since half of her mother’s family is from Spain. I also gave her Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, about the Great Depression, and Train Dreams, Dennis Johnson’s novella about a man’s life in the American Northwest, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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When she took the books to her teacher for approval, she was told she couldn’t use any of them because they had low Lexile Levels. This all seemed ridiculous to me, especially when we went into the website for Lexile Levels together and saw that Diary of a Wimpy Kid had a higher Lexile Level than John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. I love Greg Heffley and the gang, but seriously, Diary of a Wimpy Kid over Steinbeck? For real?

I did a little more research into this Lexile Level business and here’s what I found out. Lexile Level was developed by a company called Meta Metrics. Their goal was to find a method of quantifying books and reading levels in order to best match children and books. It took about 20 years to develop the Lexile Level method of quantifying. It’s important to note that Lexile Level does not qualify a book as great, or good, or bad. Lexile Level does not look at quality. All it does is give a number between below 700 to above 1700 to tell teachers, parents and readers what the reading level of a book is according to its text complexity. This means it only looks at sentences, words used, and word frequency.

Students take tests and get their own Lexile Level; this way teachers can best match books to students. Lexile Level is supposed to be helping students read and improve based on sentence and vocabulary. On its website, a student can enter her Lexile Level as well as her reading interests and get a list of books that would not only be to her interest, but within her reading level.

But here is an example of Lexile measurement results. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway has a Lexile Level of 730. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has 1000. Just looking at the opening sentences, it makes you wonder. In the first page of a A Farewell to Arms there is a sentence of 50 words. And in the start of the second chapter there is a sentence 68 words long. But the sentences are not particularly complex. That’s because Hemingway was a master. His varying of long and short sentences created a pleasurable rhythm so the reader rarely felt the book was difficult to read.

In Diary of a Wimpy Kid there doesn’t seem to be a sentence over 40 words. But there are plenty of vocabulary words you’ll never find in Hemingway’s work: smoothie, cranium, wrinkly, crabby and peekaboo. Perhaps this explains the high Lexile Level.

No offense to author Jeff Kinney. I love the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. My 9-year-old loves reading them, and rarely stumbles on the prose. When we read The Old Man and the Sea, he begins to falter right after the first few pages, and pretty soon he’s yawning and falling asleep. But if the Lexile measurements keep a curious kid from being able to read great literature—historical fiction or otherwise—for her school assignments, then maybe it’s time for a new measuring stick.