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What is Lexile and is it important for heritage language learners?

If you’ve used websites like Newsela, you’ve probably seen articles at different reading levels with numbers like 890L. What is this and how does it help you know if a text is right for your students? Keep reading to find out why Lexile is important for heritage and immersion language learners.

Language Transfer

If you have a World Language teaching background, you likely never learned how to teach reading. After all, students are expected to come to World Language classes with the ability to read in their first language. That just transfers to their second language, right?

Not quite. First, novice language learners learn how to read the word as they learn its meaning. Heritage learners already know the meaning of the words, but that doesn’t mean that they know how to read them.

There are clearly additional barriers for transfer from English to languages like Russian, Arabic or Cantonese that use completely different letters or characters, but even if the language’s alphabet is the same, the sound-letter correspondence is always different. For example, in Spanish the letter H is always silent but in English it is always pronounced. This means that even though heritage students are already able to understand and speak the language and read in English, they can’t automatically read at that same level in English.

Overall, yes, strong literacy skills in one language do transfer to other languages, but the extent of this transfer varies from student to student based on a lot of factors.

Finding A Text Level

When heritage speakers or immersion learners are learning to read, using Lexile can be very helpful. Lexile is a system used to measure the difficulty of a text. It is also a measure of a student’s reading ability. Using the two, we can know a student’s reading level and match the student to appropriate texts that are at their level.

Systems of leveled books have been around forever, but they are usually aimed at elementary students learning to read for the first time. For example, the most common system, from Fountas and Pinnell, uses letters–A is a book with almost no words for preschoolers and Z is longer and more difficult chapter books for children in 5th or 6th grade. However, using this system doesn’t work well with older students because they are reading at higher levels and the materials are too childish.

The Lexile Framework® was created by a research organization called MediaMetrics® and it’s the most widely-used metric for older students. Books are rated on a scale from below 200L for very beginning readers to above 1600L and beyond for extremely intricate college-level content. The L at the end of the number indicates it is the Lexile Framework® ranking, but has no effect on the number.

The Lexile ranks the difficulty of the text based on the word frequency (vocabulary) and sentence length. Less frequent words and longer sentence length mean a higher Lexile.

Finding a Student’s Lexile Level

To find a student’s current Lexile level, the student usually needs to take a test that will give the student’s Lexile from 0L to 2000L in increments of five. There isn’t just one specific test, instead many different publishing companies have reading programs that include ways to assess Lexile.

My district recently implemented a program called Achieve 3000, which is available in both Spanish and English. For the first time this year, my students took a level set test that adapted to their answers to find their Lexile level in Spanish. It took my high schoolers 30-45 minutes to complete.

I’m not a fan of standardized tests or spending learning time testing, but I have to admit that having a Lexile level for each student is EXTREMELY valuable.

Even with the sophomore students that I had taught last year and felt like I knew where they were at, I definitely got some surprises. Perhaps the biggest shock was seeing how wide the range was. In my freshman Spanish Language Arts (immersion) classes I have students with levels roughly between 400L and 1200L–that’s like 2nd grade to 11th grade in the same class!

1300L is the level that students should be at to be prepared for reading at the college level. With this goal in mind, you can see a chart showing the Lexile ranges by grade levels.

One important thing to note is that the chart above is for English, not Spanish. There has been less research done in Spanish, compared to English, but this chart shows grade level bands for Spanish, based on K-12 Spanish texts being used in the US. The level of Spanish textbooks used at each grade level is substantially lower than the English level. I don’t know the exact reason for the difference, but I would assume the Spanish texts that are being used in the US are easier because in general our students read at higher levels in English than they do in Spanish–at least that is the case with the vast majority of my students, even the heritage speakers.

Matching Students to Texts

Once a student’s Lexile level has been determined, we can match them with the perfect text. Their reading sweet spot is texts that are 100L below to 50L above their Lexile. At this level they should be able to comprehend 75% of the text they read.

You can look up the Lexile of just about every Young Adult book in this system. If you have very different levels in a class, it would likely be better to not have all students read the same book. A simple way to start with differentiation would be with literature circles and having students read books of different levels. Read about how I did lit circles with my immersion students for more details.

If your district doesn’t have a reading program, you can find leveled texts in English and Spanish for free on Newsela. Newsela doesn’t include a student level test, but as students read Newsela articles it will determine their reading level based on their correct answers to the quizzes they take at the end of the reading. The free version of Newsela doesn’t show the teacher the actual level of text the student is receiving, but it supposedly is still calculating this level for students. One drawback with any of these adaptive programs is that students need to read a large number of articles for the program to be able to calculate or update their level. For example, with Achieve 3000 it is four articles a month.

Limitations and Cautions

It’s important to remember that there are other factors besides the text difficulty that will affect students’ comprehension of a text. For example, if students have a lot of prior knowledge in a topic, or if they are especially interested in a topic they’ll be more likely to understand what they’re reading. I’m a strong reader, but even if I were reading a relatively simple 900L text, if it was about how cars run (something I don’t understand at all) I would probably have trouble reading it.

A common criticism of Lexile is that, like most standardized assessments, it labels students as “good” or “bad” readers. Students can see usually see the Lexile number of texts, although not the actual grade level that this corresponds to. In Achieve 3000, students are shown the level they test at and then can watch themselves progress. Depending on the student, this could be motivating or disheartening.

Another caution is to avoid pigeonholing students into only reading the books exactly at their Lexile. Motivation for reading cannot be underestimated, but knowing a student’s reading level can go a long way towards helping them be a successful reader.

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