Jack Stenner's Lexile Framework
Matching texts with readers
AT THE HEIGHT of the controversy about the readability formulas in the 1980s, Jack Stenner, one of the founders of MetaMetrics, Inc. published a new system for matching texts with readers. Called the Lexile Framework, it uses a single 0-2000 scale for rating both reading skill and the readability of books. The company further made its system available to the public and proceded to grade thousands of books. Once you know a reader's Lexile measure, you can search the Lexile database at lexile.com for books that match it.
The Lexile Framework has since become one of the largest and most successful systems for the development of reading skills. The Lexile Book Database contains more than 100,000 English and Spanish fiction and non-fiction titles from more than 450 publishers.
More than forty publishers and book sellers such as Barnes and Noble use the Lexile Framework for bringing together readers and their books in the most effective way. States and school districts across the nation have adopted it for their schools, tests, and libraries.
The Holy Grail of Education
Matching students with the right books has long been the holy grail of education. Since the 19th century, educators have known that students learn new vocabularies in the same order but at different rates. It is crucial to provide texts that match the reading skill of individual readers. This enables them to learn the necessary skill as quickly as possible, without passing by some students by or requiring others to slow down.
Solving this problem led to many government-sponsored research projects. Jack Stenner was always in the middle of that effort. Ever since his first Ford Foundation grant in 1972 working for schools in Washington, D.C. he was involved in measurement and policy.
In the 1980s, he discovered that text readability could be predicted from sentence length and the familiarity of vocabulary. He developed a new formula based on sentence length and the computerized averages in the American Heritage Intermediate Corpus. This collection contains over five million words from 1,045 books used by students in grades three through nine.
In order to promote his framework, Stenner is still on the road, meeting with school boards, teacher organizations, politicians and businessmen and working with school districts across the nation.
His research has appeared in many scholarly journals including Popular Measurement, Rasch Measurement Transactions, Journal of Educational Measurement, and Phi Delta Kappan. He is on the board of several professional organizations, including the Institute for Objective Measurement and the National Institute of Statistical Sciences. He is an active member of the National Council on Measurement in Education and the International Reading Association.
There have always been critics of the Lexile Framework who claimed it is either too simple or to complicated. But the increasing number of school districts adopting it has disarmed most of them. Not surprisingly, several other systems have emerged that also offer reader-specific books such as ATOS Readability from Renaissance Learning and the REAP Project of Carnegie Mellon University.
For reading success, nothing works as well as accurately matching texts with readers.
How to write for different audiences
EVER since the 1930's, educators have found it is just as critical to match the reading levels of texts for adults as it is for students. Research showed that adults have the same reading difficulties as do students of the same reading level. What is true of texts for students is just as true for adults of the same reading levels.
To write for a class of readers other than one's own, it it best to study the types of things they read. Jeanne Chall and her colleagues in the 1996 Qualitative Assessment of Text Difficulty wrote that a readability formula will only take you so far.
It is neccessary not only to match the style (vocabulary and sentence structure), but also the organization, tone, approach, typography, and design. For that purpose, Chall and her colleagues provided samples of 52 normed texts of different genres, going all the way from the first to the 16th grade. You can find them and other normed texts reprinted here:
Nothing helps more than studying the types of literature and periodicals read by your audience. Libraries and magazine racks are good places to start. Rudolf Flesch and Robert Gunning spent several years doing just that. In 1949, Rudolf Flesch published this chart:
Robert Gunning followed up in 1952 with his chart:
It is important to remember that comic books are generally written at the 4th-grade level, the most popular tabloid newspapers and magazines at the 9th grade level, metropolitan newspapers at the 11th-grade level, and professional journals at the 16th-grade level.
Another great resource is libraries. Most libraries, like the Stowe Library in Vermont, have classified books for different levels of readers such as juvenile and young-adult, fiction and non-fiction.
A large section of every library is dedicated to fiction, most of which is written at the 7th-grade level, the easy-reading level for the largest adult audience.
You can also use systems such as the Lexile Framework to access books that are very accurately graded for different audiences.
When it comes to comes to reaching your audience, nothing beats carefully matching the reading level of your text with that of your audience.
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