When the Text Gets Complicated

Our goal is to produce the most interesting, curriculum-appropriate yet entertaining books possible. We look to current events and hot topics of the year when creating series and brainstorming books. But sometimes we editors are faced with a unique challenge: fitting a complicated topic to a younger reading level.
Whether a series focuses on animal life cycles, space exploration, or taking civil action, the student’s reading level is always a key point to keep in mind. The Mars rovers may be a high-interest topic but explaining how they work or process information isn’t always easy to explain at a third grade reading level, for example. Here are some techniques we may use to keep a complicated topic at its designated reading level:

  •  Monitor the ATOS score – ATOS is a formula publishers can use to calculate the reading level of a text. The formula provides a score based on the word count, average word and sentence length, and terminology used in a text. Each grade is attributed a score range in terms of its 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles.
  • Adjust sentence structure – If a text has complicated terminology that can’t be replaced, an easy fix is to break up the sentence structure. Rather than using compound sentences or grammatical features like em dashes and semicolons, I’ve found that more basic sentence structures can not only keep the reading level lower but also take away some distracting complexities in an already complicated text.
  • When in doubt, keep it simple – Many times I’ve found myself sticking to the mantra of ‘keep the text as simple yet accurate as possible’. I’ve had to cut text that would either be too complicated or not entirely necessary for a younger reader’s general understanding of the topic. We never want to overly simplify something to the point of making it inaccurate but for a younger grade, I like to think of these books as an introduction to a topic they might be interested in researching further someday.

What other tips and tricks do you have for simplifying a complicated topic? Share your ideas—and any other books that have done a good job of doing this!