Laura and I have had a couple of recent discussions with clients about readability levels, so I realized that it might be helpful for other writers to see a couple of the tricks and tools I use to manage readability in texts where that’s a concern.
Early elementary readers are one of my favorite audiences when I’m writing books for educational publishers. In recent years I’ve done several series for this age level through a Lerner imprint called Millbrook Press. Millbrook provides guidelines outlining what they expect from the titles—reading level, word count, the curriculum standards that must be satisfied, what kinds of back matter I need to include—and then I write the books with all of those factors in mind. It’s a bit like putting together a puzzle, making sure all the pieces fit into books that are hopefully also both entertaining and informative.
Hitting a lower reader level is not always easy when you’re writing about complex topics, as I’ve discovered when writing books about the environment, money management, and holidays that have deep historical and cultural roots. But I enjoy the challenge!
Part of the Millbrook guidelines ask me to make sure the books fall within a certain ATOS range. ATOS is a readability formula developed by Renaissance Learning, Inc. Teachers can look at the ATOS level of a book and determine whether it is a good match for the students in their classroom, based on the reading levels of the students they teach. I don’t know how Millbrook came to choose that measurement (there are certainly other good readability measurements out there)—it may be as simple as the fact that Renaissance provides very easy online tools for writers to use to check a manuscript’s level!
- The younger the targeted reader, the simpler the words I choose. The Children’s Writer’s Word Book is very helpful in that regards. And by “simple words,” I don’t mean just how long a word is, but how likely it is that the word is a concept that a younger child would understand.
- When I’m writing for early elementary readers, I try to keep my sentences to twelve words or fewer, even if that means the language is a little more stilted than when I am writing for adults. Part of my revision process is to count sentence length and then think of ways I can break longer sentences into two shorter sentences.
- Not only do I try to keep all sentences twelve words or fewer, I also deliberately build in several very short sentences of five or fewer words. Sometimes adding a few very short sentences is enough to bring down the ATOS level a few decimal points.
I love making complex topics understandable for younger readers. Check out these tools if you’re interested in writing for newly independent readers who need books that fit their still-developing reading abilities.