A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma: Reading Level

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

I think it’s safe to say that all writers and editors of children’s books think about reading level at least some of the time. Within Lerner’s editorial department, we think about reading level a lot of the time. All of our nonfiction series have designated reading levels. Some manuscripts are on-target from the beginning, but for others the author and editor may spend a fair amount of time working to bring down the reading level. (I have yet to hear of a manuscript that ever came in with too low a reading level!)

From ATOS to Fountas & Pinnell to Lexile, the systems for measuring reading level can quickly become overwhelming. I can’t begin to explain how those different leveling systems work, but I do want to share some of the things I think about when it comes to reading level:

-If a curricular concept is studied in 3rd grade, a book written on the topic at a 5th grade level won’t do much good. Yes, an advanced student could handle the book, but our curricular nonfiction is generally aimed at on-level readers.

-If a book is about a topic likely to appeal to reluctant readers (e.g. monster trucks), short, punchy sentences and accessible vocabulary will help engage readers and help them stick with the book from beginning to end.

-Two of the keys to reading level are sentence length and vocabulary. Long sentences can often be broken into two or three shorter sentences. (And I promise if this is done skillfully, the text will still flow smoothly!) When a certain word is an essential term for a given book (e.g. tarantula in a book about spiders), it should be included. But if a word is not essential for the topic and it has a suitable synonym (e.g. flower rather than blossom), it’s usually best to go with the easier term. (The lower the reading level of the book, the more this holds true.)

-A clever writer can sometimes “earn” a longer word or sentence. If there’s a particular word or sentence you think simply can’t be changed, do what you can to lower the reading level in the surrounding text. (Of course, if the word in question is pococurante, the writer is probably out of luck!)

-When I’m working on significantly lowering the reading level of a book, my preferred approach is to take the text one page at a time. I use the reading level tool in Microsoft Word (Flesch-Kincaid) to get a score for the page. Then I start working to lower the reading level and test that section of text again. This approach helps me see that I’m making real progress as I go, even if it doesn’t give the same score that any of the other leveling systems do.

-A writer can get away with paying less attention to reading level when the book is about a fairly sophisticated topic that demands a more sophisticated approach. This is also true when it comes to picture books are intended to be read aloud and books targeted at grades 9 and above (two types of books not often mentioned together!).

-The previous point notwithstanding, we generally want our books to reach the widest possible audience. A book written at a fifth grade reading level may be suitable for both elementary schools and middle schools. However, a book written at a seventh grade level may be purchased only by the middle schools.

I hope the above memorandum has elucidated a virtually incomprehensible matter. I hope this blog post has explained a tricky topic!

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