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hen writing a children’s book, it is often necessary to adjust the reading level in your story to ensure it is written to the vocabulary and comprehension level of a particular genre: easy reader, chapter book, middle-grade, young adult.

Teens can read and understand longer sentences, more difficult words, and more sophisticated concepts than a second grader, so you may need to lower or raise the reading level of your story to fit your intended audience.

You can always pick up grade level readers at the library and read through several stories to internalize the level. Or, how about volunteering in a classroom, and sitting in on reading groups? Schools can always use the extra body, and you can learn a lot about reading level standards, and even what types of stories children enjoy most. The Children's Writer's Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner lists words according to their grade level and can be another excellent resource.

But what happens when you've written your story at one reading level, and you later need to make it more kid-friendly or readable at the sixth, third, or first grade level? Below are several tools you can use to solve this problem, starting at the sentence level and moving to the word level.

TIP: To view the readability statistics of your story or document in MS Word:

  • Go to the Tools menu and select Options.
  • Click the Spelling & Grammar tab.
  • Tick the Check grammar with spelling and Show readability statistics checkboxes.
  • Click OK.
  • Go to the Tools menu and select Spelling and Grammar (or with a Mac, select Show Readability Statistics.)

Now you can join the fun! Take an article you recently wrote, open it up in MS Word, and click on “Spelling and Grammar.” You’ll see a list of readability statistics. Are they too high? Let’s lower them!

FLESCH-KINCAID

The Flesch Reading Ease formula used by Microsoft Word is a number from 0 to 100; the higher score indicates easier reading. That means that 100 is a very readable text.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula converts a Reading Ease Score to a U.S. grade-school level. These scores show how well you have lowered the reading level of a story although don't assume it will match the reading level used by schools or the publisher you seek. Consider this a suggested reading level. Both formulas look at the average number of syllables in the words and average sentence length. It is recommended that text be at least 200 words before Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scores are accurate.

SPACHE AND DALE FORMULAS

There are lots of different instruments to help identify reading level, but some, like the Fry (named for its creator Edward Fry) require you to count words, sentences, and syllables and plot them on a graph. To test a book, you need at least three samples of 100-words exactly. It's tedious and time consuming.

Go instead with an easier instrument. I've found a website that helps lower reading level without counting yourself silly. It gives you the reading level and, better yet, highlights the difficult words. You can choose between the Spache (for grades 1-3) and Dale (grades 4+) Readability Formula. Both include a helpful listing of acceptable words. Unfortunately, you can only test a little over 200 words at a time; although, it took all of the words in the examples I’ve used below.

ADJUST AT THE WORD LEVEL

When your reading level is too high, begin by keeping the key words of the sentence but substitute easier synonyms. "Louise bombarded her brother and his chums with snowballs." If you substitute "attacked" for "bombarded," and use "friend" in place of "chum," you will lower the level easily.

Maybe you have difficult, even scientific words, in your story. Use contextual clues to help define the more difficult words.

Example:

1.  With the use of a seismometer, an instrument used to detect the shaking of an earthquake,…

2.  With the use of a seismometer, the instrument's pen on a drum of paper shows the violence of the earthquake.

Notice how the difficult word is followed by a definition or description that makes the difficult word easier. The difference may not show up in any readability index, but the passage will be more readable.

ADJUST AT THE SENTENCE LEVEL

There are several ways to increase your story’s readability:

  • Write each sentence in regular sentence order: subject followed by verb.
  • Avoid short, choppy sentences that sound stilted.
  • Avoid passive voice. (Use: The car hit the boy. Not: The boy was hit by the car.)
  • Minimize the number of clauses and phrases.
  • Repeat words or concepts to allow the reader to become familiar with them.
  • Be sure that every pronoun has a clear, unmistakable antecedent, the noun that the pronoun (he, she, they, it, them, etc.) represents.

Example:

1.  The baseball flew over the fence where it broke a window, and even though Joey climbed to the top of the fence, he couldn't see it. (The window or the ball?)

2.  The baseball flew over the fence where it broke a window, and even though Joey climbed to the top of the fence, he couldn't see the baseball. (This sentence is clearer because we know what "it" represents.)

Be aware that some of these measures will also not be reflected in a readability index, but grade level and ease of reading will be affected nonetheless. Readability is, unfortunately, not a hard and fast rule you can measure like the number of feet in a mile.

LET'S TEST THE THEORIES

Here's a passage from Wikipedia on a subject elementary students study so they can write a report. The underlined words are the ones indicated in the Spache and Dale Formulas as the harder words not found in the index's word list. You can see that an elementary reader would find this passage challenging.

Europeans have long regarded kangaroos as strange animals. Early explorers described them as creatures that had heads like deer (without antlers), stood upright like men, and hopped like frogs. Combined with the two-headed appearance of a mother kangaroo, this led many back home to dismiss them as travelers' tales for quite some time. The first kangaroo to be exhibited in the western world was an example shot by John Gore, an officer on Captain Cook's Endeavor in 1770. The animal was shot and its skin and skull transported back to England whereupon it was stuffed (by taxidermists who had never seen the animal before) and displayed to the general public as a curiosity.

Kangaroos have large, powerful hind legs, large feet adapted for leaping, a long muscular tail for balance, and a small head. Like all marsupials, female kangaroos have a pouch called a marsupium in which joeys complete postnatal development.

Kangaroos are the only large animals to use hopping as a means of locomotion. The comfortable hopping speed for Red Kangaroo is about 13–16 mph... This fast and energy-efficient method of travel has evolved because of the need to regularly cover large distances in search of food and water, rather than the need to escape predators.

Sample excerpted from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangaroo

Total words: 212, Sentences: 10, Average words per sentence: 20, Dale-Chall Readability: 11-12th grade, Difficult words: underlined, Flesch Reading Ease: 48.6, Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 11.6 grade

SHORTEN SENTENCES

The first thing to try is to make the sentences shorter without making the text sound clipped and choppy.

Europeans have long regarded kangaroos as strange animals. Early explorers described them as creatures that had heads like deer (without antlers). They said it stood upright like men and hopped like frogs. They said it had a two-headed appearance (a mother kangaroo with baby). Many back home dismissed them as travelers' tales for quite some time. The first kangaroo to be exhibited in the western world was an example shot by John Gore. He was an officer on Captain Cook's Endeavor in 1770. The animal was shot and its skin and skull transported back to England. There it was stuffed (by taxidermists who had never seen the animal before) and displayed to the general public as a curiosity.

Kangaroos have large, powerful hind legs. Their large feet are adapted for leaping. It has a long muscular tail for balance, and a small head. Like all marsupials, female kangaroos have a pouch called a marsupium in which joeys complete postnatal development.

Kangaroos are the only large animals to use hopping as a means of locomotion. The comfortable hopping speed for Red Kangaroo is about 13–16 mph... This fast and energy-efficient method of travel has evolved because of the need to regularly cover large distances. They need this in a search of food and water, rather than the need to escape predators.

Total words: 221, Sentences: 17, Average words per sentence: 13, Dale-Chall Readability: almost 8th grade, Flesch Reading Ease: 60.4, Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 8th grade

SIMPLIFY TEXT

Now, to go lower, simplify the text by getting rid of some of the unnecessarily difficult words. Some will be necessary like "kangaroo" or "joey," but a student reading this passage will have become familiar with these words, so that will not be a problem.

Europeans have long regarded kangaroos as strange animals. Early explorers described them as creatures that had heads like deer (without antlers). They said it stood on two feet like men and hopped like frogs. They said it had two heads (a mother kangaroo with baby). Many back home called the reports tall tales for a long time. The first kangaroo to be shown to the public in the western world was one shot by John Gore. He was an officer on Captain Cook's Endeavor in 1770. The animal was shot and its skin and skull taken back to England. There taxidermists who had never seen the animal before stuffed it, and it was shown to the general public as a strange beast.

Kangaroos have large, powerful hind legs. Their large feet are made by nature for leaping. It has a long strong tail for balance, and a small head. Like all marsupials, female kangaroos have a pouch or pocket on their tummy called a marsupium in which joeys or baby kangaroos finish growing into a kangaroo.

Kangaroos are the only large animals to use hopping as a way of moving. The normal hopping speed for a Red Kangaroo is about 13–16 mph... This fast and easy method of travel has come about because of the need to travel over large distances. They need this to search for food and water, rather than the need to escape something that might eat them.

Total words: 242, Sentences: 17, Average words per sentence: 14.2, Dale-Chall Readability: almost 7th grade, Flesch Reading Ease: 72.4, Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 6.6th grade

THE FINAL TEST

Another interesting experiment would be to substitute an easy word like "dog" for the word "kangaroo." To the younger reader, reading about kangaroos, she would be as familiar with kangaroo as the word dog, so it would be a fair exchange. And substitute "baby" for "joey." I suspect the reading level would lower another grade level. Now, if we got rid of "taxidermists"…

Europeans have long seen dogs as strange animals. Early explorers described them as creatures that had heads like deer (without antlers). They said it stood on two feet like men and hopped like frogs. They said it had two heads (a mother dog with baby). Many back home called the reports tall tales for a long time. The first kangaroo to be shown to the public in the western world was one shot by John Gore. He was an officer on Captain Cook's Endeavor in 1770. The animal was shot and its skin and skull taken back to England. There taxidermists who had never seen the animal before stuffed it, and it was shown to the general public as a strange beast.

Dogs have large, powerful hind legs. Their large feet are made by nature for leaping. It has a long strong tail for balance, and a small head. Like all marsupials, female dogs have a pouch or pocket on their tummy called a marsupium in which babies or baby dogs finish growing into a dog.

Dogs are the only large animals to use hopping as a way of moving. The normal hopping speed for a Red dog is about 13–16 mph . . . This fast and easy method of travel has come about because of the need to travel over large distances. They need this to search for food and water, rather than the need to escape something that might eat them.

Total words: 242, Sentences: 17, Average words per sentence: 14.2, Dale-Chall Readability: almost 6th grade, Flesch Reading Ease: 72.4, Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 5.8th grade

SUMMARY

Notice what has happened. By making the sentences shorter, and the words easier by substituting synonyms, we have taken an article written for high school and lowered it to middle school. Even a fourth or fifth grader who reads well could understand the passage. The number of sentences has increased as have the number of words, but more simple doesn't automatically mean shorter. When you take out a harder word, it sometimes takes several easier ones to replace it. See how we have lowered the reading level by seven grade levels, and except for some sizeable, tough words left, it's probably lower than that because of other measures used that are not reflected in the readability indexes.

So, the next time your readability is too difficult, you know what to do, and it's fun to see how low you can go.


(Screenshot from MS Word: Statistics of this entire article)
***


Gail Martini-Peterson
retired from teaching English and now writes stories for children and articles for other writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two spoiled cats.


 

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