Lexile and (Lack of) Subtext

Yesterday, Mike posted about the Lexile system being used in schools to guide students towards reading that is challenging enough for their reading comprehension levels. It was the first I had heard of it. After reading Mike's post, I checked out the Lexile site to see what Lexile measures, and now I am even more sure that solely using Lexile scores to determine what students should read is doing them a grave disservice.

What does Lexile measure?
Lexile measures the quantitative aspects of text complexity, such as word length or frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion.

What doesn't Lexile measure?
Lexile can't measure the qualitative aspects of text complexity such as subtext, symbolism, and figurative language. It also can't measure the complexity of story aspects such as multiple plotlines, settings that require background knowledge to fully appreciate, and non-linear structure.

Some very challenging books are written in a deceptively simple way.  Let me offer up my experience with HOMO FABER by Max Frisch as an example.  HOMO FABER was the first novel I read entirely in German (the language it was originally written in). At the time, my German skill was on the advanced side of intermediate, and I could easily understand the vocabulary used in the novel.  What I didn't understand, however, was the subtext - and consequently, I missed the entire point of the story.

Witness this reconstructed conversation between my husband Daniel (who is a native German speaker) and me.

ME: So, HOMO FABER was pretty boring. The main character just travels around and has these romantic affairs with women. Big deal. 
DANIEL: Actually, HOMO FABER is a powerful treatise on fate versus coincidence. I thought you'd love it considering your interest in coincidence. Also, it alludes to the Oedipus myth. 
ME: Really? What were the coincidences? I didn't notice any. And Oedipus? Really? 
DANIEL: Uhhhh... did you not get that the woman he proposed to on the cruise to Europe was actually his daughter, but he didn't even know he had a daughter? It's a modern twist on the Oedipal archetype.  
ME: !!!!!!!! 
DANIEL: Yeah ... maybe you need to read it again.

HOMO FABER doesn't have a Lexile score, but I can imagine that if it did, it would be low - and summarily dismissed as too easy to waste precious reading time on. (This, of course, is entirely avoiding the topic of age-appropriateness of content). 

There is so much more to reading than a quantitative score based on word choice and sentence length. And students who are forced to adhere to such a strict system are sadly losing out on the qualitative experience a book can provide. 


JennaQuentin said...

I'd never heard of this either - very interesting. Thanks for sharing your insight. I love the bi-cultural couple story too (my French husband once asked me, in English, if I wanted me to rape the cheese, the French verb "to grate" being "raper"...)

Lenore Appelhans said...

Ha! I love stories like that. I have quite a few as well. One of my favorite mistakes foreigners make in English is saying "from the scratch" instead of "from scratch". Makes me chuckle every time.

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This is also a new thing for me. I never heard of lexile but it could be beneficial for teachers and schools systems to check the papers but it could be same way challenging too if the results are not accurate.