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Reading [yay!] vs. Reading [boo!]

February 19, 2010

[this is cross-posted from my post over at]

This is another post that is more about the conflict in the world of reading rather than conflict within the world of a book. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, since reading Cinda Williams Chima’s two blog posts on the Lexile controversy.

(I’ll let you read them, or briefly skim them and then come back… la la la. Folding a few shirts… Checking email…. making a cup of tea… OK. You back? Good.)

Whether intentionally or not, these Lexile ratings appear to potentially pit (sometimes) new readers versus the librarians and teachers in their schools. These ratings can can also ostensibly pit book against book, prequel vs. sequel. Now, I know this isn’t technically a new conflict. When I was in school 600 years ago, there were no lexile ratings, only teachers who would ruefully shake their heads and say, “Are you reading that Ramona Quimby book AGAIN?” And I would proudly nod my eighth grade head and march along my merry way.

These new ratings, though, do seem a little more insidious than scornful looks. If my oldest son – a second grader – was at school and turned away from a book he was really interested in because the lexile rating was too low or too high, as a parent I would be upset and I’d have a talk with everyone about how to remedy the situation. But as an author who cherishes her childhood memories of reading inappropriate books (both too “young” and too “old”) I would be devastated to know that children’s reading instincts were being ignored or “reprimanded”.

Ratings like these seem like a very slippery slope. Of course I can see the initial attraction – teachers and librarians can steer kids toward books within a certain range and say, “Here you go, kiddos, pick out books that are on your reading level!” and have that be that. But it worries me because kids of all reading levels, of all grades, are molding their reading habits for life while they’re in school. Why not learn that “reading for fun” and “reading for school” can be one and the same? Why not reach for a challenging new book?  The former is a conflict we don’t necessarily need, the latter is conflict I strongly encourage.

I tried to read Bradbury’s DANDELION WINE in the second grade. Did my teacher say, “Whoa, cowboy, that’s not for you?” She did not. She let me take it home and try to work it out. Did I end up bringing it back to school and trading it in for a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? I did. But I had a lot of fun trying to decipher Bradbury’s book. I felt fancy and old – and for the first time I learned that just because I could read the words, I couldn’t always understand the ideas. But boy did I want to. Did I feel bad because it was too difficult for me? No. I felt challenged to MAKE it understandable.

I worry that trying to protect kids from this internal conflict is not a good thing. On a larger scale, I worry that systems like Lexile ratings are trying to eliminate challenge; eliminate true freedom of choice; eliminate the need for teachers and librarians to be familiar with plots and characters and instead be familiar with numbers and ratings.

One final conflict, though… maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a rating system actually encourages discussion. Maybe it makes a librarian take a child to the side and say, “This rating for the fifth Harry Potter book is above your level, but I know you love the series, so read it and tell me what you think.” I sincerely hope this is the way it works most of the time, and that I’m just being cynical and cranky in the rest of this blog post. But deep in my heart, I fear lexile ratings. I fear they put a child’s interest and impulses in conflict with rankings and systems. And that makes me sad. As a reader, as a writer, and as a mom.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. E. Kristin Anderson permalink
    February 19, 2010 10:28 pm

    I had a customer ask me about lexiles once and I just looked at her like she had four heads. Because I don’t care about them — a lexile is just another label. I would always tell kids sit down, read a few pages, and you’ll be able to figure out if it’s for you or not. Teachers, parents, and librarians should try a similar tactic (though it sounds like most already are — yay!)

  2. Anonymous permalink
    February 22, 2010 5:29 am

    I will admit I didn’t read the article on lexiles, so if my comment doesn’t make sense, that’s why. :) But it sounds like it’s just another way for educators to try to impose their ideas of what is proper for children of a certain age or ability. As an educator, I would never tell my students what books they could or couldn’t read. If I noticed a trend with a student in choosing books that were far below his or her reading level, then I might talk to him or her and find out why s/he was sticking with books that were so easy. But I would never say "You can’t read this kind of book anymore."I’m starting to learn further and further towards thinking that children are hardwired to want to learn. Traditional education, in general, tends to wring that desire right out of them with lame worksheets and busywork and rigid schedules and blah blah blah. I think the more hands-off we are about *what* children learn (and when), and the more proactive we are about providing children with the opportunities they want and need in order to learn the things they’re passionate about and interested in, the more likely they are to retain that love of learning. Part of that is taking them to the library and saying, "Have at it!" instead of saying, "Here are the books you can read. Choose one." Let’s let them decide what to read, rather than trying to manipulate that by age or ability. I think that’s especially important for reluctant or struggling readers. Saying, "You’re not a good enough reader to read this book that looks super-interesting to you" is NOT going to be very motivating, but saying, "I know how much you love motorcycles–I bet you’re going to learn a lot from that book" and letting them give it a shot tells them that you have confidence in their ability, which in turn may boost their own confidence in themselves. And THAT will go a very long way in improving both their reading ability and their desire to read in the first place.

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