Which Text Levels Should We Teach With?

  • text complexity Lexiles
  • 21 March, 2020

Teacher question:

 I’m confused. I’ve worked with Lexiles for years and my district provided us with a chart showing the levels of books to use for each grade level. Then Common Core came along with a different chart that put different book levels with each grade level. I don’t live in a Common Core state, but I’m still not sure which chart to use. Can you help me?

Shanahan response: 

It’s funny, but no one has ever asked me that before.

What makes it funny is that you’re not alone. Most educators have no idea of the reason for those two charts.

Let’s start with the basics.

Lexiles is a readability measure. Readability measures are mathematical formulas that transform the structural properties of texts into predictions of how well readers will comprehend those texts.

For example, Lexiles counts the number of uncommon words and the average sentence lengths in a text and then uses that information to guess the likelihood that average readers will be able to understand that text. 

Of course, there is a lot more that goes into making a text difficult than the words and sentences, but that information alone is enough to allow for a reasonably accurate guess about comprehensibility. 

The reason Lexiles or any other readability estimate can do this with so little information is because most authors are pretty consistent in how the features of their texts work together. If the vocabulary and syntax of a text are appropriate for a sixth grader, don’t be surprised if the same is true for the organization, content, cohesion, use of metaphor, and so on for that same text. 

Of course, there authors who are noted for their inconsistency. Hemingway’s syntax, for instance, appears to be pretty easy in readability predictions. But readers usually find the interiority of his presentation, the subtlety of the actions, and the cohesion demands of his texts to belie the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and nubby little sentences. That means readability measures of Hemingway are likely to underestimate the actual challenge of making sense of his books. (That’s why middle-schoolers struggle with The Old Man and the Sea despite the rosy predictions for its comprehensibility.)

Here is the Lexiles chart that you refer to. In the middle column it shows the predictions of how well students are likely to comprehend a text. If a text is at 700L according to that chart, that would mean that Lexiles is predicting that an average fourth grader would read that text with 75-90% comprehension (and it predicts that because that’s how it has worked with thousands of fourth graders with such texts in the past).

Old and Common Core Lexiles 

That may be an old prediction, but it is still the right prediction if it is comprehension that you want to predict.

The Lexile ranges aligned to Common Core are another thing altogether. Those numbers don’t tell us how well students can read particular texts. These are aspirational levels. They indicate how hard the books need to be if students are to be on track for graduating high school with sufficiently high reading levels. Those levels are not predictions of how well students will read a book, but a statement of how hard the books need to be if kids are to succeed. 

I think a lot of teachers misunderstand this. They think that readability estimates and Fountas & Pinnell levels, etc. tell about “learnability.” They think if they match students to the right books, then the students will make optimum learning progress (and placing them in easier or harder books will interfere with this progress).

However, it’s kind of the opposite. Readability estimates predict comprehension, not learning. Lexile scales and book leveling systems provide gradients from easier to harder in terms of how well the texts are likely to be understood. But if students can already read texts with 75-90% comprehension without teacher assistance, then “teaching” kids to read from those books should be a non-starter. Instead of stretching students to handle harder texts (the Common Core column), they are focusing on having kids practice with levels of demand they have already conquered.  

You didn’t ask about it, but another important confusion is between readability and suitability.

To sort this one out it may be useful to think of texts as having two levels of complexity. One focuses on the linguistic demands of the presentation (the one measured by Lexiles and other readability measures), and the other on the appropriateness of the content and of its depth for the students. 

Take The Great Gatsby, for instance. The linguistic demands dimension emphasizes the likelihood students will gain the declarative meaning of the text. Lexiles predict that a sixth grader should be able to “comprehend” this text, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if such students could read it and recall important information from the book, such as Nick’s neighbor was Gatsby; Nick’s cousin was Daisy; Daisy was married to Tom; Tom was having an affair.

The second aspect of complexity focuses on the sophistication and appropriateness of the content, not the linguistic presentation. Perhaps sixth graders could read this book and provide the kind of answers noted above, but do I really want them, at age 11, reading about Tom’s sexual affair? And, Gatsby is a book with a lot of levels of meaning. Would an 11-year-old be able to profitably get the facts noted, while simultaneously gaining purchase on the symbolism (e.g., the green light, the closing of the window, etc.) 

That middle school students could read Gatsby with reasonable levels of comprehension does not make it suitable – in terms of content or the multiplicity of interpretation of which the book is capable. A sixth grader could read it, but I’d not require it until 9th or 10th grade. It is simply more sophisticated than the language it depends upon.

American English teachers have become expert at identifying books like Gatsby; that is books that a large percentage of students can comprehend easily because of the limited language demands of these books. In other words, they select relatively easy to read books that are suitable in terms of the content and sophistication of ideas.

Common Core has pushed teachers to assign texts that are not only suitable, but that have enough linguistic complexity that they will enable students to negotiate more difficult texts.

There is certainly nothing wrong with assigning a book like Gatsby in ninth grade, in spite of its relatively easy language, as long as students are also learning how to make sense of other texts with greater linguistic demands. 

Unfortunately, this information is not well or widely understood by teachers.

As text levels have inched up due to more rigorous standards requirements, teachers have been chagrined to find students struggling to make sense of grade level texts, when previously they could have read these with relative ease.

According to surveys by RAND and Fordham, as the books selected for teaching have gotten linguistically more difficult, teachers have been less inclined to teach with grade level books. Instead of teaching the students to make sense of the more complex language, they’ve avoided the problem altogether by going with easier texts.

Remember those language levels established in the standards show how hard the books need to be in terms of linguistic demands if the students are to succeed. Falling back to the “old Lexile” levels will certainly ensure that kids can understand the books that we are using, but they won’t give students the opportunity to learn to deal with the sufficiently texts that would prepare them for success.












See what others have to say about this topic.

Rachel Mar 21, 2020 05:08 PM

This blog post is so tremendously helpful. Thank you for dialing down the specifics of the different leveling options out there. I look forward to sharing this with the literacy specialist team in my district.

Maggie Oliver Mar 21, 2020 05:11 PM

I think about the question of "grade-level" often as an intervention specialist. With most readers, I've learned that I can support their comprehension by front-loading vocabulary and increasing knowledge of the topic beforehand. Can you address my students who read at least two years below grade level, and who have weak decoding skills? I don't see much growth with this population.

Cissy Mar 21, 2020 05:18 PM

Maggie, I have the same question as you do. Thanks for asking.

Gordon Dobie Mar 21, 2020 06:58 PM

Thank you for this very useful explanation.

What surprises me is that 75% comprehension is considered acceptable. I teach ELL's, and the research by Paul Nation and other researchers suggests that 95-98% is the minimum knowledge of vocabulary for effective, enjoyable reading without too much recourse to dictionaries.

One way of raising Language Arts teachers' awareness of the demands of reading in a foreign language is to prepare texts in which 5%, 10%, 15% and 20% of the vocabulary is blanked out or replaced by non-English words. The frustration and annoyance with the texts and the tasks is often palpable. Not understanding a quarter of a book seems guaranteed to put learners off reading at school, if not for life.

I wonder what the research - which I imagine must exist - into partial comprehension shows about its effects on motivation, development of reading and other language skills, and so on.

Karen C Mitcham Mar 21, 2020 10:15 PM

From your pen/fingers to teacher's text guidance decisions for their students. Thank you!

Timothy E Shanahan Mar 21, 2020 11:55 PM

Maggy and Cissy--

Your question is a good one, and the answer depends on the specifics of the case. How low a reader are we talking about. If the student you are thinking of is still learning basic decoding (K-1) at whatever age, I would not be so hot to put them in particularly challenging texts; they must learn to decode and focusing on that should be the priority. We don't want particularly complicated texts for them--we want lots of word level repetition and decodability in the texts that they read. And, yes, an English Learner who is a newcomer and only has K-1 English would fit into that, too.

But let's say that two-year behind student can read at a second or third grade level (or higher)... that's another story altogether. The research shows that with those students, being in challenging text is more instructive. We're so afraid kids will be frustrated by having to work on a text to get it to give up its meaning, but the data contradict that belief. There are any number of routines that can be used to scaffold success: prior knowledge evoking strategies, vocabulary instruction and dictionary use, Lily Wong-Fillmore's juicy sentences, cohesion support, discourse organization strategies, fluency supports, etc.



Mary Mar 22, 2020 06:57 PM

Hi Tim,
Can I carry on the discussion started by Maggy and Cissy to clarify and make sure I understand what was said?
It sounds as if Maggy is scaffolding the text but the decoding piece is the area of need. Therefore, the decoder at a 2-3rd grade level, should be working on the decoding skills apart from the text. The student should use the challenging text as a time to improve listening comprehension skills, vocabulary, etc, while working to build decoding skills to match this higher level.

I am also an intervention teacher working with severe special ed students, and although I do see overall growth in decoding skills, it takes many years. However, having access to challenging texts that are listened to or read to students, gives them the opportunity to engage with text that will build on reading comprehension skills. Because a majority of my students struggle with decoding, listening to texts that are more challenging offers them an opportunity to grow and learn about topics at a higher level, learn new vocabulary, and start to connect the dots when reading.

These challenging texts for students with decoding issues, should be supported with technology in order for passages, books, poetry to be read to them, rather than the student struggling to read word by word. A separate time should be set aside to work on decoding, correct?

I appreciate that time constraints, not enough intervention specialists, and district demands play a part in the equation, but want to make sure I've understood.
Thank you for your help,

Harriett Mar 22, 2020 08:52 PM

Mary says: "Therefore, the decoder at a 2-3rd grade level, should be working on the decoding skills apart from the text. The student should use the challenging text as a time to improve listening comprehension skills, vocabulary, etc, while working to build decoding skills to match this higher level."

I have found myself over the past two years teaching a third grade class once a week in addition to doing small group intervention with first and second graders. It has given me the opportunity to implement your suggrestions, and I find they do work. With the exception of the students who are still struggling to blend and segment, my other struggling decoders are able to tackle the grade level articles we cover as long as I work with them on their multi-syllabic decoding skills applied to the difficult vocabulary in the articles. Their word recognition issues that place them at end of first/beginning second usually revolve around gaps in orthographic mapping, so this is what I address small group to facilitate their ability to access grade level content.

It seems counterintuitive, but it works, and these students can make good progress.

Tim Shanahan Mar 23, 2020 01:08 AM

No, perhaps the student needs decoding instruction (seems likely), but the text is not used for listening comprehension, but reading comprehension.


Gail Campbell Mar 23, 2020 12:48 PM

Hi Tim,
What about students with a larger gap between the decoding level and the student’s current grade level? (I am a Special Education Consultant.) Many students with learning disabilities have more than a one or two year gap. We are using decodable texts with explicit, systematic, sequential phonics instruction at a separate time of day. However, as an example, if a student is a 6th (or 7th) grader on a 1st grade reading level for decoding, I would use a read aloud or a text to speech option to give the student access to a 6th (or 7th) grade grade complex texts during close reading lessons for listening/language comprehension instruction and vocabulary instruction, so the student could join the rich class discussion and learn to comprehend grade level complex texts. Having the goal for oral or silent reading comprehension with that wider gap seems like it would be counterproductive because all or most of the student’s mental energy and time would be spent on decoding while plodding slowly through the text rather than allowing the student to focus on comprehension with complexities like the ones you mentioned- vocabulary, syntax, content, organization, cohesion, metaphor(s), and so on (characterization and perhaps multiple layers of theme in literary text or one or more central idea(s) in informational text, etc.) Even a 3 year gap would make it tough to focus on comprehension. I agree that we need to challenge all students with instruction using complex text on grade level. If we don’t, we could cause a comprehension deficit with which the students didn’t even start because of lack of exposure/access and lack of instruction with higher levels of complex text. My understanding is that a read aloud or text to speech option would be warranted in some of these cases when the gap is so wide that the low decoding level would impede the student’s ability to concentrate on comprehension. If we would insist on oral or silent reading (instead of listening comprehension) during comprehension instruction for a student with a wide gap, the student would need much assistance with decoding such as the teacher telling many words to the student. By the end of every sentence, the student would need to reread each sentence perhaps more than once to even begin to think about the meaning. The comprehension instruction would suffer in cases like this. Sadly, there are too many students out there with these wide gaps. We are trying to close the gap with high quality phonics instruction with decodable texts. In the meantime, what do you think about listening comprehension instruction with read aloud or text to speech options for these struggling decoders?

Gail Campbell Mar 23, 2020 04:32 PM

When I talk about comprehension above in my comments, I am including close reading lessons for the instruction of analysis of complex texts.

Timothy E Shanahan Mar 23, 2020 10:51 PM


There is only one study of this with learning disabled students and the oldest of these in the study were in 5th grade (and the best readers among the group were reading at a beginning second grade level). They gained as much learning working with grade level texts as with texts at their supposed reading levels. The students who you said were decoding like first graders I would keep in more decodable texts and would work on listening, but by the time they could read at 2nd grade level, that would not be the best choice for them.


Gail Campbell Mar 24, 2020 03:20 AM

Thank you! That’s very helpful.

Kelly Mar 24, 2020 01:49 PM

I spent ages trying to find the citation you referenced for "Rick Wanger!" Turns out the scholar is named Richard Wagner, and here is a relevant link for anyone else looking: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6364747/ Dr. Shanahan, it would be extremely useful for you to link references (or cite them) so we can learn more deeply about the research you mention.

Mary Mar 24, 2020 06:09 PM

Thank you Gail, for clarifying my thinking and Tim, for responding.

My LD students do not have the resilience to power through a more complex text without me reading the text to them, but with this support do much better. The language is lost on them because of decoding, even though they may be a struggling second grade reader, the emotions of the situation or character 6-8 grade complexity are fairly understood and can be discussed with some explanation.

When I report back to parents quarterly, let's say for a student who is between 15-18 years old, I let them know the decoding level their child is at ( based on the phonics program we are using and for example, the QRI, usually first or second grade), but also inform them that when discussing passages at a higher level that have been read to them( again for informal assessment, QRI passages for example from 5th grade to late middle school), the student understands and is able to answer explicit/implicit questions from the text with a certain amount of accuracy.

This is how I have been thinking about challenging my older students when reading, those who cannot decode more than 2nd grade texts. It lets the student shine with his thoughts and ideas about a particular topic, showing what he knows, rather than focusing on what he cannot do, decode.

Any and all feedback on this topic would be more than welcome. Our special ed school does highlight functional academics, but also engages the students in all academic subjects in order for them to grow in all areas to their fullest potential. I want to know best practices for this special group of learners, hence the continuation of this conversation.
Thank you!

Tim Shanahan Mar 25, 2020 02:15 AM


Try some fluency work previous to work in on reading comprehension with a text.


Adam Shackleton Mar 26, 2020 11:19 AM

Hi Tim,
I thought Gordon’s comment was particularly pertinent. A comprehension range of 75% to 90%+ seems like an incredibly broad range, particularly as that isn’t necessarily always contextual, as you noted with the example of The Great Gatsby.
I teach in the UK, so while we may utilise Lexile scores, not many teachers are familiar with the system. Rather it seems books being published in the last decade use the phonemic awareness to gauge difficulty.
I’ve used PM Benchmark in the past to assess children’s fluency and comprehension and for children to be ‘secure’ at a band, they need to have more than 95% correct word decoding and higher for comprehension.
If you look at a book like Matilda for example and say that only 95% of words need to be understood for comprehension to take place, you would have at least 1000 words which the children couldn’t understand due to vocabulary limitations. I don’t think I could cope with such a huge gap in vocabulary and still understand. Alex Quigley makes this point in his book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’.
What is your opinion on this sir?

monica Apr 02, 2020 09:11 AM

At what age can you start teaching a child to read?
If you delay your child's reading skill development until he or she enters school is a problem. There is a simple and extremely effective system that will even teach 2 - 3 year old children to read.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Which Text Levels Should We Teach With?


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