CEFR – Lexile – Reader-Levels

Most of my classes refer to CEFR levels, especially when designing the coursework. I often find interesting reading materials that are not necessarily created with the EFL student in mind. While imperfect, using the Lexile levels can be helpful . Here’s a chart I found online

Lexical Coverage

The first concept is lexical coverage, which is how much vocabulary a learner knows in a given text. In order to estimate lexical coverage, we need to know students’ vocabulary size. Several studies have tried to estimate the size of students’ vocabulary at the different CEFR levels (Capel, 2010; Milton, 2010; Milton & Alexiou, 2009). While the research is not definitive, for the IEC’s purpose, Table 1 below should prove helpful:

Table 1

Vocabulary Size at Different Common European Framework Levels (CEFR)

Common European Framework LevelVocabulary Size Estimate
A11,000 words
A22,000
B12,500
B23,000
C15,000+

Once we understand students’ vocabulary size, we can begin to analyze the vocabulary used in a text and estimate the lexical coverage. However, the threshold for lexical coverage is quite high. Research estimates that only if learners know at least 95% of the words in a text will they be able to adequately understand it (Laufer, 1989; Laufer & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, 2010). The ideal percentage might actually be higher (Nation, 2001; Laufer & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, 2010). This is relevant when selecting reading passages. For example, CEFR B2 level students might know about 3,000 words, so an appropriate reading passage would have 95% of the words from the list of the 3,000 most common words in English. Tools, such as Lextutor, can help determine that percentage. In that way, both the vocabulary in a text and students’ level can influence the selection of reading passages.

Holistic Text Measures

While lexical coverage is important, sentence difficulty may also affect reading comprehension. Both grade level scores and Lexile levels provide some indication of sentence and vocabulary difficulty. When making former versions of the IEC exam, reading passages were assessed using Flesch Reading Ease and an aggregate of other grade level scores. These scores measure word and sentence length to determine grade level and/or text difficulty. They are also relatively easy to interpret, so a 12th grader should be able to read a text at the 12th grade level. As students exit the IEC at Advanced 2, they should be reading at that level.  

While Lexile measures correlate with other readability scores, they may be more precise (Wright & Stone, 2004). In part, this is because the Lexile tool analyzes each word in a passage, comparing it to a 600-million word corpus to determine vocabulary difficulty (Lexile, 2017). Using this vocabulary difficulty rating along with sentence length, the system then assigns a Lexile level (L). Scores range from 200L to the most difficult 1700L. In a study of university textbook demands, Williamson (2008) estimates that university materials are at a 1200L-1400L level. Therefore, students exiting the IEC should be prepared to read at that level. However, students at the B2 CEFR level (Intermediate 3 and Advanced 1) might only able to read at the 1000L level (Smith & Turner, 2016). Table 2 below is based on Smith and Turner’s (2016) research and estimates students’ Lexile levels. These Lexile levels should be taken into account when selecting reading passages for in-class use and final exams. (See Appendix 1 for information on the estimated Lexile level of common IEC reading textbooks, using the Lexile Analyzer tool.)

Table 2

Lexile Levels for Intensive Reading at Different Levels

IECLevelsCEFRLevelsIntensive ReadingLexile Levels(approximate) 
IntroA10L to 600L
Basic 1A2-180L to 600L
Basic 2A2+180L to 800L
Intermediate 1B1-700L to 1000L
Intermediate 2B1+700L to 1200L
Intermediate 3B2-1000L to 1250L
Advanced 1B2+1000L to 1350L
Advanced 2C11250L to 1400L

Macmillan has a useful online reader level assessment tool. Here is their CEFR equivalency chart. Documentation here.

Macmillan Readers CEFR
Starter and Beginner A1
Elementary A2
Pre-intermediate A2-B1
Intermediate B1
Upper Intermediate B2

Oxford Level 5 is said to be equivalent to CEFR level B2