One More Tool to Match Readers to Texts

The Lexile Framework for Reading offers a good starting point for educators and parents attempting to make decisions as to whether or not the complexity of a text is well-matched to the reading level of a particular reader.  As articulated by the Common Core State Standards, the Lexile Framework provides a good measure of the quantitative dimensions of a text.  Meaning, the Lexile measure reflects the types of words and sentences used in a particular text; and, when matched to the Lexile reading level of a student, provides useful information on the student’s likely level of comprehension.

Of course there are other things to consider.  A parent or educator should always consider more than just the Lexile measure when attempting to match a young reader to a particular text.  There are qualitative dimensions (themes and content) and reader/task considerations (context, background knowledge) that should be taken into account.  As with any tool, the Lexile Framework is most powerful when used appropriately and as intended – to help match readers to reading material based on text complexity and the reading level of the reader. 

Here is reading expert and CEO of TextProject, Freddy Hiebert offering some useful caveats to educators on using the Lexile Framework appropriately:

Children’s reading performances are heavily influenced by the vocabulary in a text.  Typical word frequency ranges for different grades are given in Table 2.  When word frequency averages are substantially lower than typical grade ranges, teachers should know that students might need some extra vocabulary support.  

And, always remember:  There are big differences in the styles and vocabulary of stories (narratives) and informational texts (content-area texts)…

…Teachers should use the lexile rating as an initial piece of information, much like a check of someone’s temperature.   A temperature can be high or low for lots of different reasons.  The average sentence length and average word frequency gives teachers more specific information that is useful for decision-making.

Hiebert’s cautions are well-taken.  Educators and parents should always consider context when using Lexile measures to assign texts.  Additionally, they should take genre and concept density into account as they seek to match readers to texts.  As Hiebert reminds us, Lexile measures are an excellent starting point when considering the level of text that is appropriate for readers; and the Lexile Framework is a worthwhile addition to the various tools that educators bring to bear in the classroom.

Traversing the Texts: An Appreciation of Text Complexity

Here’s Mark Bauerlein over at Education Leadership offering a useful reminder on the importance of the ability to tackle complex texts:

Will more technology in high school classrooms help? Not in the crucial area of reading. When teachers fill the syllabus with digital texts, having students read and write blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like, they do little to address the primary reason that so many students end up not ready for college-level reading. When they assign traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids, they likewise avoid the primary cause of unreadiness.

That cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts…

Bauerlein’s concern is that many of the post-secondary texts with which students must wrestle are inherently ambiguous, e.g. a supreme court decision, a poem, a philosophical treatise, a contract, etc…  Their meanings are best  teased out through a deep and reflective reading.  In addition to being constructively ambiguous, many of the texts with which students must struggle (think Emerson, Nietzsche, Holmes, Freud, etc…) are not capable of being reduced to a few simple pages or bullet points (to paraphrase one philosopher, any system of thought capable of being reduced to a nutshell belongs there…).  Many of our most cherished texts and documents are  expansive, self-contained works, rich in meaning and related to a long canon of work.  As Bauerlein argues, Thoreau’s assertion that he went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately or Nietzsche’s assertions about claims of knowledge are not easily grasped by reading over the first few pages.  The reader is expected to critically reflect over the pages and to locate the writer’s meaning in the fuller context of the writing:

When faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, an epic poem, or an ethical treatise—works characterized by dense meanings, elaborate structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and subtle authorial intentions—college-ready students plod through them. Unready students falter.

This is the sort of task that does not lend itself to distraction.  To paraphrase Bauerlein, a reader trekking through Locke’s political treatises is unlikely to make it very far if they are simultaneously updating their Facebook status, tweeting their latest thought, popping up a blog entry, streaming Pandora, and clicking on hyperlinks through the margins.  For this is not the sort of reading that lends itself to browsers.  Many of our most valuable and cherished texts, the ones most worth reading, reveal their import through a focused and deep absorption into the text.

That’s not to minimize the importance of technology in the classroom or the important role that personalized learning platforms can play in differentiating texts for struggling readers.  And Bauerlein is careful to avoid nostalgic claims about the destructive influence of online reading or the Internet destroying our mental capacities.  Instead, he merely suggests that more attention should be paid to deep and meaningful reading, to the undistracted and focused reading of high level texts; and that time should be set aside to allow students to explore these sophisticated texts in a distraction-free (meaning, unplugged) zone.

In that sense, Bauerlein’s concern echoes what both the Common Core State Standards and a study by Nell Duke have already pointed to: that American students are reading far too little informational texts.  As we’ve written before, for a student raised on a diet of fiction, a strong dose of informational texts may come as a shock to the system.  It’s little wonder then that many students graduate unprepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, that they arrive at the university only to find that even introductory texts present a formidable challenge.   Nell Duke argues that students should be exposed to informational texts at an earlier age and the Common Core State Standards attempts to address that deficiency by pushing for increased exposure to informational texts at a higher rate and at an earlier age.

 Bauerlein’s suggestion is worth considering.  With far too many students finding themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, it’s our hope that encouraging students to tackle higher levels of targeted texts at an earlier age will move them ever closer to the levels of texts they will undoubtedly encounter in life after high school.

Forging A Path Toward College & Career Readiness

Much has already been written on the dangers of graduating unprepared to face the reading demands now found throughout universities and the workplace. There’s been ample research demonstrating that many of today’s high school seniors are graduating ill-prepared to tackle the rigors of the post-secondary world .  Even those students who qualify as ‘proficient’ within the boundaries of their own state find that proficiency does not necessarily entail readiness for the reading demands of life after graduation.  Declining levels of text complexity at the high school level translate into less rigor and many students are unfamiliar with richer, more complex texts,  which is why so many universities have witnessed an increase in the number of freshmen enrolled in remedial, first-year courses. 

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards Initiative offers a clear trajectory toward college and career readiness, though a recent report from ACT shows just how much work many states have to do to place their students on a track toward college and career readiness.  A sample of 250,000 high school juniors, for example, found that the students were unprepared for the standards proposed by the Common Core.  Within English/Language Arts, only 38 percent were proficient in reading and a little more than half were proficient in writing and in language. Students were especially weak in science literacy and only 37 percent showed proficiency in statistics and probability. The weakest area in math was number and quantity.   The ACT report goes further than just analysis, however, and offers some suggestions on how states, districts, and schools can support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  

Another recently released study, REL Southwest’s How Prepared are Students for College-Level Reading? Applying a Lexile®-Based Approach, offers a real-world perspective for measuring the effectiveness of preparing students for post-secondary success. Using The Lexile Framework for Reading, the study matched student scores on an exit-level Texas English language arts and reading assessment with college English textbooks to gauge students’ ability to read and comprehend the books used in entry-level English courses throughout the University of Texas system: (more…)

Competing Globally Starts Locally

In this December’s issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley highlights a recent study which ranks students around the world “…using scores on standardized math tests as a proxy for educational achievement.”  While we’ve mentioned similar studies in the past, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and colleagues have gone a step further by disaggregating the U.S. into individual states in order to compare the educational rankings of other countries to single states.  By treating each state as an independent country, the study shifts the focus to locating centers and regions of excellence around the U.S., rather than just accepting a national average.

This idea being that by comparing achievement in individual states, the international ranking of the U.S. (at least at a state level) might move up the scale.  Unfortunately, as Ripley reports:

Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list.  The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17.

While this news is less than what was hoped for, it does offer the rest of the nation an exemplar.  If Massachusetts is clearly our nation’s front runner when measuring aptitude on standardized math tests, a closer study of the state’s recent reforms may allow us to glean some helpful pointers.

[In the last decade] Massachusetts…began demanding meaningful outcomes from everyone in the school building.

…More states are finally beginning to follow the lead of Massachusetts.  At least 35 states and the District of Columbia agreed this year to adopt common standards for what kids should know in math and language arts.

This is encouraging news.  With many states now adopting the Common Core State Standards, students will be held accountable for a shared set of standards, regardless of what state they happen to call home.  The focus on shared standards will allow each state to shift the focus to what it means to compete on a global scale.  Although the United States may still have a substantial amount of ground to cover, relative to other nations, emulating the effective practices that have worked so well for our most successful states is a certainly a step in the right direction.

Read the whole article to learn more about key reforms Massachusetts has made over the past decade.

Writers and Literary Critics Weigh In On Text Complexity

A recent Education Week article (subscription required) cites a newly released report by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers , which found a disturbing absence of classic literary texts in use in high schools across the country.  Instead, researchers found a hodgepodge of literary works reflecting the idiosyncratic preferences of teachers rather than a standard canon of literary classics.  More worrisome still, researchers found that the text demand of reading assignments does not appear to increase as students move  from grade to grade. 

Researchers also found a troubling tendency toward nonanalytical methods of dealing with texts:

In honors courses, it says, teachers are more likely to teach students to use a non-analytical approach to assigned reading – asking them, for example, to draft a personal response to what they read – than to engage students in a close, analytical, reading of texts.

That’s a problem, the report concludes, because “an underuse of analytical reading to understand nonfiction and a stress on personal experience or historical context to understand either an imaginative or a nonfiction text may be contributing to the high remediation rates in post-secondary English and reading courses.”

The report goes on to suggest a number of solutions.  In particular, the ALSCW recommends that state standards should be written so that reading assignments get progressively harder as students advance from grade to grade.  We’ve written much on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and the benefit of reading standards that stretch student ability to handle increasingly difficulty levels of text, as well as the importance of exposing students to a steady diet of nonfiction and informational texts.  Let’s hope some of the suggestions of this report find their way into practice.

The Stiff Penalties of Illiteracy

Here’s David Fowler making a good case for the importance of reading ability in the post-secondary world.  Fowler worries that voters may sometimes lack the literacy skills to be aware of what exactly they’re voting for or against:

After explaining that the reading of Amendment 8 was one of those tricky ones that you had to read closely, we laughed about their error. Yet, I began to think about this as a larger concern for our community. How many others who voted faced the same dilemma? Was it that they simply did not read it, or more importantly, that they did not comprehend the paragraph as written?

As Fowler explains, Amendment 8 is written at a Lexile level of 1340L – at about the same level as a university textbook.  Given that 45% of the citizens in Fowler’s county have only a high school diploma or less, Fowler worries that many of the voters may have simply lacked the basic literacy skills to comprehend what they were reading.

His point is worth considering.  Over the last fifty years, the text complexity levels of college and career materials have continued to rise, while the complexity levels of many secondary textbooks have declined.  If students are graduating accustomed to reading texts around 1100L, they face obvious challenges when confronted with texts, in the post-secondary world, that are significantly higher than what they have been reading. 

In an increasingly global environment, this alarming lack of preparedness translates into reduced educational, social and economic opportunities – not the least of which is the inability to comprehend ballot measures and the language of the voting booth.

More Evidence on the Importance of Summer Reading

We’ve long been proponents of summer reading initiatives, and have written extensively on the substantial benefits these programs can provide.  Last week the School Library Journal released the results of a study from Dominican University on the value of such programs.  They targeted students between the end of third and the beginning of fourth grades and determined students’ beginning Lexile reading levels by using the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI).  Their findings reiterated the importance of summer reading.  As SLJ reports:

Students who take part in their local library’s summer reading program significantly improve their reading skills.  In fact, we found that kids who participate in these programs are 52 Lexile points ahead of their peers who do not.  Summer reading programs are also an antidote for learning loss.  So instead of losing knowledge and skills during the summer months, kids who attend reading programs actually show gains.

In addition, researchers found that the students who participated in summer reading programs “entered the following school year with a positive attitude about reading, were more confident in the classroom, read beyond what was required, and perceived reading as important.” 

This is great news.  Educators have been advocating efforts to combat ‘summer slide’ for years – efforts that have finally begun to catch the public eye.  Clearly, this study provides evidence which further supports the call to encourage summer reading. (more…)

Bridging the Readiness Gap

In the latest issue of Chiefline, the newsletter for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), our own Malbert Smith offers a clear reminder of the importance of establishing empirical standards for whether students have met reading requirements:

Common Core Standards have uncovered alarming trends in terms of student understanding of complex texts, including the downward trend in secondary education’s use of complex tests while post-secondary schools have increased the use of those texts. Recent studies reveal a gap of 65L to 230L between the demands placed on high school seniors and the difficulty of post-secondary texts based on median Lexile measures. A gap of 250L can translate into high school seniors understanding their 12th grade texts to only understanding about 50 percent of their college texts. To appropriately modify the P-20 landscape, educators must do away with labels like “proficient” in favor of empirical evidence of whether students have met reading standards, and lawmakers must adopt standards that evaluate the expectations each grade should use as a guideline.

Smith rightly argues  for utilizing a clear way to assess student reading level.  After all, evidence indicates that the text demand of secondary resources has been steadily declining, while the text demand of post-secondary texts has been on the rise.  Characterizations like ‘proficient’ or ‘satisfactory’ fail to identify a student’s readiness for the demands of the post-secondary world.  A metric, like the Lexile Framework, places both the reader and text on the same scale, thereby establishing a clear way to assess a student’s reading level in relation to the material to be read.  And by comparing the text demand of college resources educators are better able to assess student preparedness for college level text before a student even begins his post-secondary work.

Read the whole thing.

Improving Literacy for Struggling Readers

According to the recently released The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study Final Report, supplemental literacy classes can improve reading comprehension, grades, test scores, and even behaviors.  But not always by much.  And not always for long.

The study examined the effect of year-long literacy classes as electives for struggling readers.  Students, who were on average, at a 5th grade reading level, increased their comprehension more than comparable students who took Freshman English but no additional literacy course.  The increase was slight, but statistically significant.  Their math and English state assessment scores rose more than the comparison group and they completed more courses with higher grades. Unfortunately, these differences were lost by the end of the year following students’ enrollment in the supplement course.

What’s the import of this study? (more…)

From Novice to Expert

Tony Schwartz over at Harvard Business Review gets it exactly right: the key to excellence is practice.  Specifically, deliberate practice.  Building on the work of Anders Ericsson, Schwartz argues that whatever role our genetic inheritance plays, it is the type of effort we put into an endeavor that determines how good we become:

Like everyone who studies performance, I’m indebted to the extraordinary Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading researcher into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work — something he calls “deliberate practice.” Numerous researchers now agree that 10,000 hours of such practice as the minimum necessary to achieve expertise in any complex domain.

Ericsson’s research on human performance and what it takes to move from novice to expert has informed our own research here at MetaMetrics and has recently been popularized by writers like Geoffrey Colvin and Malcom Gladwell.  As Malbert Smith has written in ‘Education Reform: Making this the ‘Best of Times’: (more…)

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