Core reading will be a lot harder

Teachers will assign more complex, challenging reading — if they follow Common Core standards, concludes a Fordham analysis of what students are reading now.

Currently, many teachers try to assign books that match their students’ reading skills, especially at the elementary level. Common Core calls for assigning grade-level reading and giving students extra help to understand it.

In trying to improve reading comprehension, schools made a tragic mistake: they took time away from knowledge-building courses such as science and history to clear the decks for more time on reading skills and strategies. And the impact, particularly on our most disadvantaged students whose content and vocabulary gap is so great, has been devastating.

Teachers are assigning “relevant” and “easily digested books” in hopes of getting students to read, according to Common Core in the Schools.

. . . classic literature has, in many classrooms, been replaced by popular teen novels (often made into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. Indeed, the former, according to Renaissance Learning . . . became the most widely read book in grades 9-12 following its theatrical release in 2012. Yet it is pegged at a fifth-grade reading level.

The most-assigned books are Because of Winn-DixieAnne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and To Kill a Mockingbird, the Fordham survey finds.  Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail also is assigned frequently.

“Across all grade levels…there was a tendency to err on the side of lower-level books,” says Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee.

In fourth and fifth grade, students should read texts with a lexile range of 740 to 1100, according to Common Core. Four of the top 10 books are below that level, including Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Middle-schoolers should be reading texts in the 950 to 1185 range, according to Common Core. Seven of the 10 most popular books for this age group aren’t challenging enough. (Is John Steinbeck’s The Pearl really an elementary book?)

Ninth- and tenth-graders should be reading texts with a lexile range of 1050 to 1335, the new standards say.  Five of the 10 most popular books don’t meet that level of difficulty. (I guess To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn often are read in earlier grades. I took a “look inside” The Book Thief, which allegedly has a lexile rank too low for fourth graders. It’s not Dick, Jane and Sally.)

Fifty-one percent of teachers surveyed — all in states that have adopted Common Core standards — said they’d made little or no change to their teaching as a result of the new standards.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    If the teachers have to explain vocab, especially outdated words, concepts, social context, and so forth, this will be valuable.
    I miss my favorite YA author, Rosemary Sutcliff, from the list.
    Anybody remember Zenna Henderson and The People? You could sure claim you were teaching empathy with that series. A number of the characters were teachers or involved with young people, or were young adults themselves. It got weird from there.
    I suppose school boards and parents would figure that scifi–except for the dystopian stuff like Brave New World–was a bad idea, whatever other virtues it may have.

    • I second the Rosemary Sutcliff motion. Her versions of classic legends ( King Arthur, Iliad, Odyssey, Aenid etc) are excellent and would be a great ELA accompaniment to the history of those periods. The same goes for her historical novel series set in Roman Britain (young male protagonist). I’ve recommended to my grandkids *(in a year or two) the official guide to the Roman Baths in Bath as an accompaniment to them, and the related history. Some of her work is out of print, but I was able to get copies of everything through Barnes and Noble’s used book network.

      Of course, teachers – even ELA – need some knowledge of the periods. The last ES teacher – 5th grade (appropriate level) – to whom I recommended her works had such a blank look that I don’t think she knew there had ever been Romans in Britain.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I guess American Lit courses will have to drop Hemingway from the program then… he usually comes in at a 4th grade level.

    It’s like the CC people don’t understand that content can matter as much as ‘reading level.’

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I imagine the teacher was qualified in Sweet Valley High.

    Anybody know where I could find a list of books with texile scores?

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Let me post my fairly standard caution about Lexile … use it as a guide, but nothing more.


      In general, books with longer average sentences will have higher Lexile scores. In this sense, lexile is measuring a proxy for grammatical complexity, which is fine, but not complete. *Vocabulary* difficulty also impacts Lexile, but not as much as average sentence length.


      This can lead to books *appearing* to be of similar difficulty by Lexile, but not being as close as they appear. So:


          830L: Half Magic
          860L: Fellowship of the Ring
          880L: Harry Potter #1


      The difference becomes clear when you look at the vocabulary difficulty … the vocabulary in “Half Magic” is similar to vocabulary in some Berenstein Bears books. The Harry Potter vocabulary is harder and the Tolkein vocabulary harder still.


      “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” scores as harder than “The Fellowship of the Ring” primarily because the sentences average longer. The vocabulary used in the Narnia stories is pretty easy.

  4. There are different ways of searching for “lexile” appropriate books at:

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mark. Jane. Thank you.
    Sentence length, huh? Well, when I think about it, I don’t suppose there’s anything else sufficiently objective.
    When it comes to vocab, I’d be interested in knowing if made-up words, as with Tolkien and Potter, count as “hard”. Shouldn’t, and the authors seem to be pretty good about describing them and/or putting them into context.
    Well, I shall see and I hope not to come to alarming conclusions.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Yes, made up words count as ‘harder.’ So some of the Wizard of Oz books come in at an 8th grade level on some of the measures…..It’s really something that should be used as a rough guideline, not a rule, I think. (i.e., the Hemingway issue) But, when you but petty bureaucrats in charge, you can expect stupid rules instead of actually thought…

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Hi Deidre,

        The Oz books almost certainly score too high on Lexile because Baum uses lots of semicolons … it boosts the appearance of grammatical complexity.


        • Richard Aubrey says:

          I suppose it takes some experience to manage longer sentences.
          But concepts such as Aslan, or various ideas in LOTR, or choosing risk and honor–or not–in Sutcliff are probably better for widening a kid’s world view.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      You are welcome.


      Sentence length is actually a pretty good proxy for grammatical complexity … but only on average. The “Oz” books, for example, tend to score higher on Lexile than they *should* because Baum uses lots of semicolons where we’d use periods today 🙂


      I don’t know how Lexile scores made-up words … but unless there are lots (think Lewis Carroll) I doubt it will matter much.

      • cranberry says:

        I’ve read _The Killer Angels_. It’s more challenging to read than Charlotte’s Web. It’s a Common Core exemplar, but its lexile level is only 610. Your average 2nd – 3rd grader would not be able to make heads nor tails of the book.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Wait a minute. THE KILLER ANGELS!? Shaara? THAT Killer Angels?
          Doesn’t that jar your preserves.
          I bet Rick Atkinson’s WW II trilogy wouldn’t score that high and I wouldn’t let an el ed kid near it. Too horrible, not to mention he’d have no background, WW II being internment, Hiroshima, Pearl Harbor.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Patterson’s Jacob I Have Loved comes in at 880– too easy for middle schoolers.

    BUT while I read it before that, I needed to be older to ‘get’ the unreliable narrator, and the subtlety of the story.

    Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying” have lexile levels of 890. So…4th or 5th grade. *THAT* must be why my nine year old hasn’t read them yet! She reads at an 8 or 9 grade level, so Faulkner must be too EASY for her!

    While I trust good English teachers to understand why Lexile Level is a stupid way to evaluate curricula, I don’t trust administrators. Will excellent high school teachers be dinged in evaluations because they didn’t ‘challenge’ the kids by giving them denser prose?

    Maybe this is why CC suggested government docs as appropriate reading material…. bad prose often has a higher lexile level than good prose!

    • Lexile scores, like almost anything else in education, are a good idea ruined by rules.

      If you view them as another piece of information to help teachers pick books, the scores can be useful. If codified into rules, it becomes a horrible system. Moving To Kill a Mocking Bird to 4th grade, as an example, shows how poorly lexile ranks correlate to grade levels.

      This completely neglects other factors that effect reading comprehensionbeyond sentence construction, such as concepts, background information, and characterization.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        A wise professor of mine (and famous blogger, Eugene Volokh) once said something that changed the way I looked at the world. He said:

        “A survey doesn’t measure what it wants to measure. It measures what it measures.”

        That goes, I quickly figured out, for pretty much any measurement at all. By measuring the complexity of a work according to an analytic formula, you’re not measuring suitability for reading. You’re just measuring the complexity according to that formula.

        The question is ALWAYS whether one is a good proxy for the other or not.

        Lexile scores are a poor, poor proxy for the propriety of any particular book for any given age range, or any particular group of students.

        As Paul says, they are (and I would add “at most”) a useful piece of information.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          That is one of the criticisms of high stakes tests, that they don’t actually measure what we want graduates to know and be able to do. Unfortunately, the same criticism also applies to class grades.