Writing for Kids: The Low-Down on Lexile Levels

by Amy Bearce
published in Writing

Some people imagine writing for kids and immediately picture Dr. Suess or baby board books. But the good news is you don’t have to use simple words to write for elementary kids if that’s not your style.  Go ahead and use rich, succulent vocabulary and varied sentence structure—please!

There are plenty of kids who are strong readers in need of books that challenge them. Many librarians and teachers are seeking good fiction that is age-appropriate yet challenging for advanced readers, thanks to the big focus on Lexile scores in schools.

What is a Lexile Level?

Lexile levels rank books by difficulty, based on an analysis of word frequency and sentence length. Despite the many frustrations over its implementation, plenty of schools love using Lexile scores. Writers for children need to understand them.

Publishers have certainly taken note—more than 200 of them now submit their books to be measured by Lexile, and apps and websites abound that will match books to student reading level. Students can take a test to identify the Lexile range within which they should be able to read comfortably. The Lexile website says that over 35 million students have received Lexile reading scores, covering all 50 states. Many school libraries even color-code books by Lexile (despite the American Association of School Library’s firm stance against labeling books by reading level.) And―this is the kicker―in a number of schools, students are required to read within their score for class, usually with a 100 point range. This occurs despite the fact that Lexile states on its own website, “Never take a book out of a child’s hand because of its Lexile measure.” (I loathe this practice, but that’s an article for another time.)

Young Readers Need Challenging Fiction

There simply aren’t enough age-appropriate books for advanced readers, especially fiction. For an elementary student with a Lexile score over 1000, most of their best options will be considered “too easy” if teachers require them to choose within their Lexile range. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, for example, is 880L, and the ever-popular Warriors series by Erin Hunter ranges between the 700’s to 900.

There are some books available with a higher Lexile for elementary age kids, but they are rare. Some teachers even post lists of them on websites like discovered treasures, because educators are struggling to find books their strong readers can read “on their level.”

However, it’s not just advanced readers who can enjoy a higher Lexile scored book. The popularity of some of these “hard” books among even struggling readers shows that having complex sentences and high vocabulary does not automatically put a book out of reach of the average elementary kid. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever scored a 1060L, and libraries can’t keep those books on the shelf.

Hey Writers, We Need You!

Be yourself, even if you’re different. Photo Credit, http://gratisography.com/, Ryan McQuire

This is where you writers can come in. If you find yourself writing naturally more challenging books for kids, keep at it, and don’t be discouraged.

Remember, librarians and teachers in elementary schools are buying books with higher Lexile scores, too—if the content is appropriate. Our local school librarian just ordered every novel she could find for 3rd-5th graders that had a Lexile higher than 1000. And the library had money left over from that allocated sum, because there weren’t enough books to buy that fit the bill.

So, if you write for kids but use advanced, rich words, take heart. Know that there are kids who need books written higher, just as there are kids who need books written lower. If you have someone trying to simplify your middle grade book just to “make it easier for kids to read,” tell them kindly to leave you alone.

A Book is More Than Its Lexile—Don’t Worry TOO Much

Catcher in the Rye artistic shot gratisopgrahy cmp

Catcher in the Rye has a Lexile of 790L. My third grader would have been told it was too low of a Lexile level. (insert maniacal laughter.)   credit: www.gratisography.com, Ryan McQuire.]

Clearly, a book needs more than a certain Lexile to be good for students, even advanced readers. No Lexile score captures the true difficulty of a book. For example, a book like Hunger Games, clearly written for a teen audience or above, scored 810L, because content is not taken into consideration in these scores. That score doesn’t mean it was intended for fourth graders. As another example of the importance of content, consider that both The Grapes of Wrath and Charlotte’s Web weigh in with the same 3rd-5th grade score of 680L. Clearly, a book needs more than a “right” Lexile to be good for kids. But if your book is intended for a child or teen audience, a hard Lexile can still work.

I’m not suggesting you purposefully manipulate your book’s Lexile to make it more challenging. But knowing your book’s score and how it fits into the school market is wise.

Children (all children) deserve a range of reading material—and they are ready for it. You might be just the person to help give all young readers in school something challenging to read that’s written with them in mind.

Note: All Lexile scores were taken from Lexile’s Find-a-Book tool on their webpage.

Here are five book choices for 3rd-5th grade strong readers. Might your work be a good fit for this category?

Series of Unfortunate Events, range from 1010L to 1370L.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, series, several are over 1000L
The Higher Power of Lucky, Susan Patron 1010L
Dear Dumb Diary series, by Jamie Kelly, ranges of 840L-1120L
Wind in the Willows, 1140L

Additional Reading about Lexile for the curious

(These journals can be accessed through your local public library in most cases.)

FORCHT, DIXIE. “Libraries And Lexile Levels.” School Library Monthly 28.7 (2012): 21-23. Professional Development Collection. Web. 18 July 2015.

Harvey II, Carl A. “An Inside View Of Lexile Measures: An Interview With Malbert Smith Iii.” Knowledge Quest 39.4 (2011): 56-59. Professional Development Collection. Web. 18 July 2015

Reid, Calvin. “Lexile: Will All Books Need This Reading-Level Rating?.” Publishers Weekly 245.32 (1998): 240. Literary Reference Center. Web. 18 July 2015.

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Amy Bearce_1Amy holds a Masters of Library Science along with a certification in school librarianship.  She is a former reading and English teacher, mostly for 6th-8th graders.  Her debut book, FAIRY KEEPER, is an upper-middle-grade fantasy, now available from Curiosity Quills Press.  She currently lives in Germany with her family, though they still call Texas home. Her daughters are 9 and 11 years old. As you might imagine, middle grade books are a hot commodity around their house.

 

 

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