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
  • Words: 2274
  • Characters: 9914
  • Paragraphs: 115
  • Sentences: 356
  • Sentences per Paragraph: 3.4
  • Words per Sentence: 6.3
  • Characters per Word: 4.0
  • 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.

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