At a recent book festival, I noticed a tween girl eying my table. Finally she walked over, picked up one of my books, and began reading.
When her mom approached, the girl waved the book over her head like a flag. “This one!” she begged her mom. “Please?”
Her mom smiled patiently. “Let me have a look,” she said. She flipped through the pages as if she were searching for something. “What’s the lexile?” she asked me.
“Lexile?” I repeated, even though I knew what the word meant.
She began to explain the concept of “lexile,” then gave up. “What grade level is this book for?” she asked, sighing.
“Fourth through seventh, mostly,” I answered. “Although some third graders read it, and so do eighth graders. There’s really no rule.”
The mom glanced at her daughter, who by then was at the other end of my table, flipping through another book. “The reason I ask,” she murmured, “is because my daughter is a very advanced reader. She’s in the fifth grade, but she’s reading on a tenth grade level.”
My heart went out to this mom, because I know what it’s like to have a kid who’s an “advanced” reader. Advanced readers tend to be voracious ones, the kind of kid who brushes her teeth with a toothbrush in one hand and a book in the other. It’s a full-time job supporting a book-addicted kid’s reading habit. And finding appropriate books can be an adventure: you don’t want your kid to read books that are too babyish, because they will bore her, and possibly turn her off reading. But at the same time, you don’t want her to read YA books that may be intellectually more stimulating, but too mature in other ways–too dark, too edgy or too sexually explicit. After all, your fifth grader is still a fifth grader. A kid, not an adolescent.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned as a parent, a teacher, and an author: if we want our kids to become lifelong readers, we need to let them read for pleasure. This means allowing them to make their own reading choices (within reasonable limits). And we need to support their choices, not pluck books from their hands in the name of lexiles and reading levels.
Because why does any kid choose any book? Maybe she likes the cover, or the title, or the plot summary on the book jacket. Maybe she likes the author’s style, or finds the main character someone she’d want as a friend. One of my totally unproven (and unprovable) theories about MG reading is that for many kids, especially the “advanced, voracious” ones, reading is a social experience, a chance to hang out with the characters, empathize with them, laugh with them, learn from their triumphs and blunders. And to do any of that socializing in a meaningful way, they need characters they can relate to– which usually means kids roughly around their own age.
But what about the parent’s responsibility to educate her child? Is there anything wrong with a mom leafing through her daughter’s book to check if its language is rich, and enriching? No, of course not; but a kid’s pleasure reading shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of: Does this book contain vocabulary words? Some of the best-written books don’t even have “big” words–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to give one example. And some of the worst books are bursting with pompous verbiage and gobbledegook. The best middle grade fiction does so much more for kids than just expand their vocabulary.
I recently came across an article about a study conducted by Britain’s Institute of Education, which suggested that children who read for pleasure have a more advanced vocabulary as adults than non-pleasure readers. “The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary…may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” said the researchers. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.” For older kids (age 16), reading “highbrow fiction” made the greatest improvement in adult vocabulary; but for the ten year olds, it seems the frequency of pleasure reading, and not the level or “lexile,” may be the most significant factor. To me this suggests that if you want your fifth grade kid to continue developing her already precocious language skills, let her choose her own books. A brilliant piece by Valerie Straus in the Washington Post makes several suggestions for strategies which encourage reading autonomy in the classroom, as well.
And in case you’re wondering what happened to the mom and the daughter at the book festival: They stepped away from my table, talked it over, and returned to buy the book the daughter had chosen in the first place. When I signed it for the girl, I wrote: “Keep reading!” But something told me that advice wasn’t necessary.
Barbara Dee is the author of the middle-grade novels THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, TRAUMA QUEEN, THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE. Find her on the web at www.BarbaraDeeBooks.com and on Twitter @BarbaraDee2.