Friday, June 29, 2012

Even Garfield Likes Easy Readers

Here's another interesting site I found that focuses on helping kids learn to read. Ironically, it features Garfield!

Garfield cartoonThe site is called Professor Garfield. According to the site:
"The Professor Garfield Foundation is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) educational collaboration between Paws, Inc., the global headquarters for Garfield the Cat, and Ball State University, a nationally recognized leader in teacher training and digital education."
In case you didn't know, Paws, Inc. is the company cartoonist Jim Davis started to handle Garfield's success. And the Professor Garfield Foundation was also Jim's idea to help combat illiteracy.

The page on this site that I want you to see is this one devoted to easy readers. If you want to write easy readers, you need to study lots of them to see all the different ways they're done. There are four different Garfield easy readers that you can download for free. That gives you some more examples to study, which is good.

But there are also some study aids for these books. That means you can see how these books are meant to be used to help kids learn how to read. And that may also give you some ideas that will help you in creating your own easy readers so they'll be more useful in helping kids want to read.

Who would have thought that a fat lazy cat could help you write easy readers?

The original picture came from fanpop.com, but it stopped displaying properly so the new one comes from Wikipedia.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Want to Write a Legend?

If you're like me, you save all kinds of "favorites" in your browser... and then you never go back to them. They're things that look really useful but you can't use them right now. Eventually you forget about them.

Legends course imageEvery now and then I try to go back through my "favorites" and see if I bookmarked something I can use. Here's one I had forgotten about that's really neat. It's a complete course on how to write legends... and it's completely FREE!

Here's the deal: Several years ago the United Kingdom set up something called the National Grid for Learning (NGfL), which you can read about in this Wikipedia article if you're interested. They aren't running it anymore, but private groups stepped in and took over to provide some shared teaching resources between the UK schools... and to the rest of us as well. Cool, huh?

Anyway, this particular resource comes from the NGfl Cymru site, which is based in Wales. If you go to this page, you'll be on the "How to Write a Legend" landing page. This is a four-part teaching resource created by Bernadette Thomas, and the landing page tells you what the course covers. Just click on the "Open Resource Online" button on the left side of the page to access the resources.

And just what are these resources? A PowerPoint introduction to each section that basically "teaches" the lesson and a group of Word docs with teaching notes and worksheets, all of which you can download and use.

I've added this resource to my Some Useful Sites list in the sidebar. Things like this can be hard to find when you need them, and it's really nice of the NGfl Cymru to make them so easily available to the rest of us.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam

This is just something cool I found that I think can be helpful when you're writing a children's book.

The page is called The Fantasy Novelist's Exam and it's at a site called RinkWorks. That's an entertainment site that seems to focus on creating parodies of popular literature, movies, etc. The Exam is a list of 75 "yes or no" questions to see if your new fantasy novel is worth writing. If you answer "yes" to any question -- yes, that's any question -- they say you should immediate can the novel and move on to something else.

There are a few things in the list that I don't think are the kiss of death. For example:
4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
That's just a variation of the Hero's Journey, which is a standard framework for stories -- not just fantasy, but virtually any type of story. Since Christopher Vogler wrote his book The Writer's Journey, many if not most movies are based on the Hero's Journey. Here's a page that gives you a pretty good overview of what the Hero's Journey is. As you can see, you can make almost any story fit this outline.

That's all the Hero's Journey is, an outline that you can use or not use as you desire. It ends up on the Exam because it's so easy to do it badly. But that doesn't mean you can't use it effectively.

I got a good laugh out of the following two questions:
18. Would "a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword" aptly describe any of your female characters?

19. Would "a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan" aptly describe any of your female characters?
Unless I miss my guess, that eliminates most female characters except those who can neither fight nor cook and therefore just stand around and scream for help. In a fantasy novel most women are either wives or warriors, since your typical feudal setting doesn't provide the occupational smorgasbord available to modern women.

Archetypes -- some people call them stereotypes, although I'm not sure the two are quite the same thing -- are a useful "shorthand" for all writers, but especially when you write children's stories and don't have as many pages to explain things.

So I wouldn't throw out my stories just because the story contains "a clumsy cooking wench" or any similar character mentioned on the Exam. However, most of the Exam includes commonsense things that you may not know because you aren't as familiar with fantasy as you think. Here are a few selected examples:
38. Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named "Tim Umber" and "Belthusalanthalus al'Grinsok"? These names indicate characters with very different backgrounds, which is much more likely to happen in a larger city than a small village.

46. Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls? Think beyond inns here. If your characters started an inn, they must have had reasons besides hosting brawls. That goes for anything in your story -- it needs a practical reason to exist beyond just being a convenient plot device.

54. Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs? According to Wikipedia's article on gold bars, the largest gold bar in existence is roughly 18x9x6.5 inches. That's not very big, is it? It would slide easily into many backpacks. Well, not easily -- that bar weighs 250 kg (551 lbs). You might not want your heroes to run away (or even crawl away) while carrying a bag of gold!

58. Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar? Scimitars have seriously curved blades. You don't stab anything with them, you slice.

64. Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man? Forget Hollywood movies. In real life people are pretty easy to kill.

65. Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an "on the road" meal? If you think about this one, you'll realize that the classic story Stone Soup makes much more sense if the soldiers need most of the day to make the soup.
These are commonsense considerations for your characters, even if you don't have to deal with them everyday. Little things like this can make your story either memorable or laughable.

So take a quick look at The Fantasy Novelist's Exam. You'll probably get a good laugh, and maybe learn to avoid a few writing pitfalls along the way.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Steve Barancik on Writer's Block

I've added some pages to my Some Useful Sites list, and I wanted to call your attention to one in particular.

Barancik photoSteve Barancik's page on generating ideas is actually a pitch page for some writing books he sells, but the page itself has a lot of good ideas to help you deal with writer's block.

Barancik says that "Writer's Block is simply the condition of being blind to all the story elements that are available to you." He was a Hollywood writer and, if you know anything about Hollywood, they run through ideas like water through a sieve. His books are about how to apply the Hollywood approach to generating new ideas to writing children's books.

I won't go into all the things he says on this page -- and no, I haven't read the books and I don't get any money if you decide buy anything from him! -- but one thing I like is his approach to the old "what if?" game. He uses The Three Little Pigs as an example. He writes:
Everyone knows the tale of The Three Little Pigs and their encounter with the Big Bad Wolf. Most people think of the story as written in stone.

I see it as a lump of clay. You can too.
What he does, as he says on the page, is question his assumptions. Why does the story have to be told from a pig's viewpoint? He suggests My Story, by B.B. Wolf as one way of approaching it.

We always assume the pigs are male. He suggests a version called Sister Pig.

Steve gives a couple of other possibilities on the page, and those are from one of his books called 44 Ways to Fracture a Fairy Tale. It's part of a $24.95 package, and -- let me be clear about this -- I'm not telling you that you should buy his books.

But even without buying his books, I found a lot of useful info on the page. If you struggle with writer's block, a few minutes spent there might get your creative juices flowing.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A New List in the Sidebar

I've added a new gadget in the sidebar just under my post list. It's simply called Some Useful Sites, and it's going to have links to children's sites I have found useful.

Right now there's only one in the list. It's for Writing-World.com's Writing for Children page, which has links to a number of articles about various kinds of children's writing -- definitely more than just how to write easy readers. Of course, there are quite a few about picture books (which can provide some useful info that's applicable to easy readers) and even YA novels. (I've never understood why YA stuff gets lumped in with children's stuff. If you have any experience at all with both ages, you know they don't think anything alike!)

I'd like to call your attention to one particular article on that page. It's called Hi/Lo Books: Writing for Reluctant Readers. The article is old -- August 2006 -- but the info is still useful. Hi/Lo books, in case you've never heard of them, are basically easy readers written for older age groups that have trouble reading. Carolyn says my books may have some potential as hi/lo readers as well as the young readers I have in mind when I write; the reading requirements are that similar. So if you're interested in writing easy readers, you might want to take a peek at that particular article.

Eventually that new gadget should have quite a few sites listed. It's going to take me a while to dig up all the ones I've used, however, so be patient with me. Some have to be "refound" while others have to be checked to make sure the urls are still active. I'll get them all added eventually, so keep checking back.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Understanding Reading Levels, Part 3

This is the continuation of Part 2, which was getting a little long. In this post I want to look at how you can adjust your writing to make it better fit a certain reading level. I'll also give you an idea what reading levels look like. (Don't worry, that will make sense soon enough!)

In the last post I quoted Kathleen Horning's book From Cover to Cover, which said:
Although there are no hard-and-fast rules -- and even formal readability scales such as Frye and Spache are not always reliable -- we can make a general overall assessment of a book by taking concrete factors such as word usage, line length, sentence structure, and illustrations into consideration. (p128)
While readability scales -- like the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scores that Microsoft Word gives you (I mentioned those in the first post of this series) -- may not be reliable, they're built from information that can help us adjust our reading levels as we write. Word gives you that information in the same dialog box that gives you the Flesch scores, and most word processors will give you this info even if they don't use a readability scale.

As an example, here's the info Word gave me for The Krilt's Secret Weapon when I ran the "Spelling & Grammar" check:
Word Statistics
Counts
  • Words: 2274
  • Characters: 9914
  • Paragraphs: 115
  • Sentences: 356
Averages
  • Sentences per Paragraph: 3.4
  • Words per Sentence: 6.3
  • Characters per Word: 4.0
Readability
  • Passive Sentences: 1%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 98.8
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 1.0
The counts aren't particularly useful, although the word count can be helpful if you're writing to a specific length. A Level 1 easy reader is going to be shorter than a Level 3. And sometimes a length is specified; a children's magazine might want a story that's 300 to 400 words long.

The main numbers you care about are the averages -- sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word. You can quickly adjust your reading level by changing these. For example, according to the Children's Writer's Word Book (Writer's Digest Books), sentence lengths typically look like this:
  • Kindergarten: Sentence length of 5 to 6 words, longer sentences broken up into smaller fragments starting with "and," "or," etc.
  • First grade: Sentence length of 5 to 6 words, but an occasional sentence of 10 words max is ok -- whole ideas are preferred, but it's not a hard and fast rule
  • Second grade: Ideal sentence length of 5 to 6 words, but some publishers consider 10 words a target length
  • Third grade: No numbers given, but examples included sentences well over 10 words in length -- basically a mixture of lengths
I think word length is greatly underestimated. I try to stay at or below 4.0 characters per word if possible. I may write more about this in a later post, but let me say this: There is a list called the Dolch list. These are words children are expected to learn by sight -- words like the, and, or, of, and so forth. There are 220 of them and, unless I miscounted, no more than 40 of them have 5 letters or more. There's a second list of 95 nouns; I think that 41 of those have 5 letters or more. (The Cat in the Hat uses only words from the Dolch lists, btw. These are "substantial" words -- words that are necessary to good speech -- if you know what I mean.) You can print out lists of the Dolch words from the page at this link, if you're interested.

Of course you will use words that are longer than these when you write, but what all that means is that the vast majority of words you'll use when writing for children are small words. It should be fairly easy to keep the letter count down. Note that my Captain Nexus book stays at 4 characters per word despite being science fiction.

One last thing, and that's how reading levels look. I made this image from the PDF version of The Krilt's Secret Weapon, just to show you the extremes of levels. Note that the pages were designed to be seen one at a time; that's why the page numbers are on the upper right of both pages. That's the way the book would be read on an ereader like a Kindle or Nook. The books aren't available in paper right now because they would be too expensive, so I didn't try to duplicate a print layout.

2-page spread

See how the illustration takes up most of the left page, with only a few words -- in this case, the chapter name and part of the first sentence? That's the sort of thing you'd see in a Level 1 easy reader. If it was all regular print like the bottom sentence, there would be 4 or 5 lines on this page with maybe 6 or 7 words per line, tops.

The right page is how a Level 2 or 3 reader would look. There are 16 to 18 lines per page, around 7 or 8 words per line. And you would typically want an illustration for every 2-page spread, though it probably wouldn't be as big as mine.

Normally you wouldn't use both a paragraph indent and a space between paragraphs, but I was experimenting a little. On a Kindle or Nook you can just increase the font size to reduce the number of words per line and lines per screen; you can't do that with a PDF, even when the pages are as large as these. (Each of these pages would print out at nearly the size of a sheet of notebook paper. That's because I used the images I made for the Kindle and Nook editions, which print out at around 72dpi.) Note that you can still read the print, even with the pages shrunk this small! The extra white space I added between the paragraphs definitely helps improve the readability here. On future books I'll probably try to reduce the number of words per PDF page a bit more as well.

Anyway, I hope these 3 posts have given you an idea how you can determine the reading level of your easy reader. If you think in terms of shorter sentences and smaller words when possible, you'll find it's not so hard to write natural-sounding speech. Simple writing doesn't have to sound stupid. My rule of thumb is super-simple: If it doesn't sound good when you read it out loud, it needs more work.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Understanding Reading Levels, Part 2

In my last post I started looking at reading levels, especially the scales used by word processing programs like Word or online testing sites. These are basically algorithms that compute a reading level based on various numbers calculated from the text that is being tested.

Those "calculated numbers" are really what you need to think about when you're trying to write for given grade level. They aren't hard to understand but you may not be used to thinking about them.

I have a book called From Cover to Cover, subtitled Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books, by Kathleen Horning. It has a section that explains easy reader "levels. Horning writes:
Easy readers fall roughly into three levels based on how easy or difficult they are for children to read. In evaluating an easy reader, it is very important for the critic to determine the level of the book by looking at elements of design and content. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules -- and even formal readability scales such as Frye and Spache are not always reliable -- we can make a general overall assessment of a book by taking concrete factors such as word usage, line length, sentence structure, and illustrations into consideration. (p128)
Ok, she says there are generally three levels. Some publishing companies use four, but Carolyn (my local children's librarian) says that the three levels are pretty much the same across all companies. More important to us is how the level is determined. Note that Horning says there are no hard-and-fast rules and that readability scales aren't always reliable. (You may recall my comparison of scales in the previous post, where there was nearly 7 grade levels of variation in the same sample text.) Here's a good example of what she's talking about.

Carolyn says The Krilt's Secret Weapon is a level 2-3 reader. (I'll explain that later) I hadn't heard of the Spache scale so I hunted it up on Google and found this free test site. Spache is supposed to be especially good for rating children's texts below 3rd grade, but it uses a word list of what it considers appropriate age-level words to do so. When it tested my first chapter, it found 38 words that were not on the list -- about 10% -- and therefore rated it at just below 5th grade reading level.

There was a link to the word list. The word "space" isn't on it. Forget about any other words that aren't on the list. If "space" isn't on it, how can you write space stories? And do the scale designers really think kids can't read the word "space" and know what it means? Or that they don't read space stories?

Looking over the list, I noticed the word "dinosaur" wasn't on the word list either. And yet the Children's Writer's Word Book (from Writer's Digest Books) says in the kindergarten section:
Dinosaurs are popular with young children, but they are treated in a simplified manner here and formally introduced in fourth or fifth grade. They make good subjects for shape books or picture and coloring books... Dinosaurs are also a focus in the classroom and are the basis of art projects, music and developing reading and writing skills. (p45)
So dinosaurs are popular for developing reading and writing skills in kindergarten, but the word isn't included in a word list-based readability scale for testing books up to a third-grade level?

Clearly Horning knows what she's talking about when she says readability scales are "not always reliable"!

Horning says levels are determined largely based on "elements of design and content." She breaks these down into:
  • word usage: This would include word length as well as word choice. "Rattlesnake" is a longer word than "ion", but a child would clearly find the first word easier to grasp than the second!
  • line length: Here you're looking at both the number of words in the sentence and the number of words on a single line. I think ebooks are going to make this one a bit more difficult to judge since you can change the number of words on a line simply by changing the font size on your ereader.
  • sentence structure: How complex is the sentence? "Spot is running" is easier than "My dog Spot is running fast" is easier than "My dog Spot, who has a long tail, is running fast."
  • illustrations: Pictures can help carry some of the load. For example, in Prince Jonathan's War I used the word "shield" several times. That's not a word most kids see very often, but I used it with "sword and..." since they may have heard the phrase... and then I made sure every illustration of a sword also had a shield in it.
Here are Horning's levels. Note that the print size will get a little smaller with each level increase, simply because there are more words and lines per page:
  • Level 1 (First grade level): On average, 5 words per physical line, and 2 to 7 lines per page. As much as 2/3 of the page is used for illustrations. Sentences average 5 to 7 words. The words are generally "sight vocabulary" (words they learn to recognize purely by sight) and one syllable words of 5 letters or less.
  • Level 2 (Second grade level): Still around 5 words per line although the sentences themselves can be longer, and 4 to 15 lines per page. Pages are roughly half-and-half between words and illustrations. Sentences can be more complex, and alternate with shorter simpler sentences. She gave no word length, but her examples use words up to 7 or 8 letters and up to 3 syllables.
  • Level 3 (Starting third grade):  Line lengths typically less than 8 words, no more than 15 lines per page. Due to longer words and more complex sentences, which sound much more like natural speech, an adult may not even realize that the vocabulary is controlled. Text covers 3/4 of the page, illustrations may only be on every other page and are beginning to function more as decoration.
As I said, Carolyn ranks my books between levels 2 and 3. That's pretty close to the 1.0 Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level that Word uses in its grammar checker. That 1.0 means that a reader would need one year of schooling to read it, while a 2-3 level would be mid-second grade.

This post is running long, so I'll break here and continue in another post. But this was important, as you need to understand how levels are determined if you're going to learn how to write to a given level.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Understanding Reading Levels, Part 1

To be honest, reading levels are something of a mystery. For example, there are several different scales that are used to determine reading level, and no real agreement on which one is best.

Let's start with a common one that you may have and not even know it.

Microsoft Word has a "Spelling & Grammar" checker (I use Word 2007, and it's located on the "Review" tab) and it gives you two slightly different "Readability" numbers:
  • the Flesch Reading Ease (I'll just call it the FRE) score, which is a number between 0.0 and 100.0, and
  • the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FK), which Wikipedia says "translates the 0–100 score to a U.S. grade level, making it easier for teachers, parents, librarians, and others to judge the readability level of various books and texts. It can also mean the number of years of education generally required to understand this text, relevant when the formula results in a number greater than 10."
The two give inverse numbers -- that is, if the first number is high, the second should be low. As an example, The Krilt's Secret Weapon tests out at in Word with a FRE of 98.8 and an FK of 1.0, respectively.

If you go to Readability-Score.com, you can get the results from several different tests that all give a grade level:
  • the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level listed above,
  • the Gunning-Fog Score,
  • the Coleman-Liau Index,
  • the SMOG Index (I love that name!),
  • the Automated Readability Index, and
  • an average of them all.
These tests can differ by several grade levels for the same text. For example, I pasted the first two chapters of The Krilt's Secret Weapon and got the following grade levels:
  • the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 0.9
  • the Gunning-Fog Score: 2.8
  • the Coleman-Liau Index: 6.9
  • the SMOG Index: 2.4
  • the Automated Readability Index: 0
  • the average: 2.6
Note the range: A low of 0 and a high of 6.9. That's almost 7 grade levels' difference in the ratings! And personally, I don't buy into a couple of them. That Gunning-Fog Score? There's no way that Captain Nexus is 7th-grade reading level! But that Automated Readability index can't be right either. What does a 0 mean -- it's suitable for preschoolers? I don't think so.

While I'm writing, I rely on the 2 Flesch levels most because they're built into Word and very easy to use. If I can get the Flesch levels around 98-99 and 1.0, I know I'll have something in the correct ballpark.

But ultimately I think reading level is a matter of opinion. Therefore you should get a good opinion! That's why I have a librarian look over my books after I have something I'm pretty happy with. They use somewhat different criteria for determining reading levels.

Learning how to change what you write in order to manipulate the grade levels can be tricky. There are a few basic concepts that can help you get the reading level to move in the right general direction, though. I'll look at those in my next post.