Chill Out with Text Levels

Do you select which texts you read and listen to based on how “hard” they are?

I suppose I do, to an extent. But going forward, I’m going to tone that down. In fact, I suggest the following for all of us:

Don’t pay too much attention to text levels.

If you’ve been around language learning or education in general, you’ve probably noticed that texts are often “graded.” A few examples:

  • Books intended for use in American schools receive Lexile scores, which are an assessment of difficulty based on sentence length and vocabulary level.
  • Deutsche Welle’s German materials are separated according to language proficiency levels. They provide texts and courses for levels A1 to C, with materials clearly marked by level.
  • GLOSS modules are categorized according to their IIR proficiency, ranging from levels 1 to 3+.

…and I’m sure there are many more examples out there.

Shirakawago Japanese Village Image Source

Shirakawago Japanese Village
By Takahashi J, [GFDL or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], Image Source

Why not?

It makes sense, right? If you’re currently at an A2 level, for example, then it stands to reason that you should be reading and listening to A2- or B1-level texts.

Well, I think we should all probably chill out with all this text-grading stuff.

First, text grades are notoriously inaccurate. Or maybe instead of “inaccurate,” I should say “controversial,” because any kind of text grading is going to be inherently arbitrary. An article in “The New Republic” picks apart Lexile accuracy, pointing out that according to Lexile scores, Sports Illustrated for Kids’ Awesome Athletes! is appropriate for a ninth grader, while the literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird is more suited for a fourth-grader. The article author, Blaine Greteman, puts it nicely:

“But missing from this debate is the question of whether the idea of the Lexile makes sense at all. When Huckleberry Finn isn’t complex enough for our high-school students, I can’t help wondering if we need to change the way we conceptualize literary complexity.”

The controversy extends to materials for language learners too. Deutsche Welle, for example, offers simplified news stories in their “Top Thema” course that are labelled as being appropriate for B1 learners. Yet in some articles I’ve read, the vocabulary is specialized and elevated to the point of being better suited to C2 learners. If a text has B1-level sentence constructions but C2-level vocabulary, how difficult is that text really? (That’s not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know.)

Second, even if text grades were 100% accurate, they’d only be marginally useful. Why? Because no one learns a language in a straight line. People don’t learn all of A1 material and then move on to A2, and then all of A2 material and then move on to B1, and so on. Instead, people learn enough language to keep moving forward. This means that even advanced students will have significant holes in their language. So for example, if you’re an overall C1-level student but haven’t been exposed to many basic grocery terms (usually considered A1-level vocab) then you’re going to be stumped by the “easy” text chock full of grocery-related words.

Third and finally, focusing excessively on text difficulty removes you too much from the experience of communication. What kinds of texts we’re exposed to is dictated by our environment, our interests, and our day-to-day activities. When you select a text based only on its perceived difficulty, you’re removing yourself too much from how language actually operates.

What to Do

Here are my suggestions:

  • Don’t pay too much attention to text grades. If you want to use them as a general guide from time to time, that’s probably fine, but definitely don’t obsess over them.
  • Use your common sense when assessing a text’s difficulty. A children’s book is going to be easier than a novel written for adults, so when you’re starting out in a language, the former is probably more appropriate. But if you’re trying to understand academic language, then reading The Economist is probably more appropriate than reading a comic book. Using your personal discernment is probably as effective, if not more so, than any paying attention to some assigned score.
  • Choose texts based on your interests or your needs. For the majority of your studying, pick texts that you like. If you like The Simpsons, watch it–often. But if you’re preparing for a test or want to improve your “formal” language abilities, as I’m currently doing now, study texts that are challenging to you. As long as you’re finding stuff that fulfills either your interests or your needs, you can disregard the text’s grade.
  • Don’t gauge how well you’re doing based on text grades. The other day, I zipped through a written passage that was labeled C2. But two days later I struggled with a text that was labeled B1. I knew not to get too cocky, but not to get too discouraged either.

Wrapping Up

What do you think? Are text grades useful? Do you use them to guide your own studying?

  • Hitrizie

    Das stimmt:)

    • Ron G.

      Glaubst du wirklich? haha :)

      • Hitrizie

        LOL, und du auch, oder? 😀

  • Natalie

    I think that what is infinitely more important than text grades is finding texts on topics you’re actually interested in. I was reading advanced texts about politics before I was officially “ready” and it certainly hasn’t harmed me. If you like the topic, you’ll be motivated to work through the text. If you don’t like the topic, even the easiest, simplest text can be difficult to slog through.

    • Ron G.

      Great way to put it

  • Delita Rae Wright

    The fastest way to improve reading ability is to read at the level that is easy for you and read a lot. My son went from pre-primer to 4th grade level on this method, in only 8 weeks. Later I found this is a standard and very effective method for increasing reading level. I do watch the level I am reading on, but in an effort to keep it low. My experience has been that the two places I get best retention of new vocabulary is in reading children’s books and in singing songs with YouTube videos that include lyrics. Of course I keep a window open with a translator. Keeping both books and music simple really seems to jumpstart my productivity. The easier it is, the more I absorb. Until it gets too easy and my brain seems to drain off like warm jello. Then I wake myself up and get back to work with something different and at a little higher level.