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.
- 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.
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.