Not Loving Reading Levels
I’ve ranted about this on my own blog, but it seems worth revisiting here since it’s come to my attention that this kind of thing is still going on.
I was introduced to the notion of reading levels in a previous life when I was responsible for developing patient education materials that patients in our high-risk urban population could read and understand. I worked hard to translate complex subjects into clear, concise, vivid language for adult readers. As I recall, our goal was a fifth grade reading level.
Eventually I left the jungles of health care and began writing young adult fantasy novels. Sometimes reading fantasy is like hacking through a thicket of words. One of my goals was to write in a clear, straightforward, vivid style that would make fantasy accessible to readers who didn’t even know they liked fantasy.
At my very first author event after my debut novel was published, a kid approached me at my table and said, “What’s the AR level of your book?”
Me: Um. I don’t know. But, don’t you want to know what the book is about? See there’s this high school boy who discovers he’s among the last of a guild of magical warriors who—“
Him: That’s okay. And he drifted away in search of a book with the right score.
So I asked my teenage son (a voracious reader) about AR. He rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, you read a book, and then you have to take a test about it. Way to ruin a good book.”
A year or so later I had dinner with a group of librarians the night before a school visit. One of them was complaining because the school administration wanted her to “Lexile” the library.
The district wanted her to paste the Lexile reading level of every book on the spine. That way a kid wouldn’t accidentally choose a book that was too easy or too hard for him. Even if it was a book his friends were all reading or by an author that he really liked or about a subject he was really interested in. And if the kid tried to sneak it by, the librarian was supposed to consult his reading score and say, “Oh, no, honey, that book is too easy/hard for you. Let’s find something else.”
Way to ruin pleasure reading. Can you imagine how an adult would react to that? But they don’t level books for adults, because adults get to read what they want. Assuming they still enjoy reading by the time they get there.
My books? Although they’ve been published as adult books in some countries, they’re all ranked in the 700’s in the Lexile system. Which is about the fifth or sixth grade level—below the standard reading level of my target audience. As are Cassandra Clare’s novels and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and Beautiful Creatures. John Green’s books are ranked in the 800’s and 900’s.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid? It’s in the 900-1000 range.
E-mail from a boy: I was just wondering if you were planning to raise the reading level on your next book, because I’m told it’s a little low for me.
See, reading levels have nothing to do with content, with theme, with encountering new ideas and having experiences you’d never have in real life. They don’t measure the way a book sticks with you sometimes. How you lie awake for hours after you finish a book, replaying those scenes in your mind, maybe writing a different ending. Reading is by its very nature a creative process, where readers and writers both contribute to the final work. The reading experience is different for every person that picks up a book.
Reading levels? They’re all about sentence length and word choice.
I’m passionate about this, because reading for pleasure changed my life. Reading took me from first grade failure to first generation college graduate to college professor to published author. And nothing gives me more pleasure than when a reader writes to me and says, “Your books made me a reader.”
I’m not a reading specialist or a politician But it seems to me that reading levels are helpful in choosing books appropriate for struggling readers. But not for measuring reading achievement, developing school scorecards or evaluating teaching effectiveness.
See, just because something is hard to read doesn’t mean it’s worth reading.
Cinda Williams Chima is the New York Times bestselling author of the Heir Chronicles and the Seven Realms fantasy series for teens and adults. Her fourth Heir Chronicles book, The Enchanter Heir, debuts October 22, 2013. Visit her at www.cindachima.com, follow her on Twitter @cindachima or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/CindaWilliamsChima. She blogs at http://cindachima.blogspot.com/.