I was inspired by the presentation of Chris Richards, editor at Written World Communications and president of Mile High Scribes (ACFW South Denver Chapter), at the August 12th HIS Writers (ACFW North Denver Chapter) monthly meeting, to delve deeper into the literacy problem in the U.S. today. As I did, it occurred to me why Young Adult (YA) fiction not only appeals to youth, but to older teens and adults as well.
For instance, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series is ranked by Scholastic as having an Interest Level of 6th – 8th grade (MG), which is equivalent to an age level of 11-13 years, Lexile Framework of 810L, a Grade Level Equivalency of 7.0, a Guided Reading Level of Z, and a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) of 7. (For more information on these terms, go to http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/leveled-reading-systems-explained.)
In an article written by Doug Barry, Scholastic was quoted as saying,
…as of July 19, [Scholastic] had over 50 million copies of
Collins’ books (23 million copies of The Hunger Games, 14 million of Catching Fire, and 13 million of Mockingjay) circulating around the U.S., having their covers folded back, their pages filled with beach sand, and their bindings generally abused by careless readers. (Barry)
But does that mean the popularity of this book series is limited to middle grade? Absolutely not! In fact, if you do a Google search you will find many parents feel the interest level of 6th – 8th grade (age level 11-13 years) is marked too low due to the graphic content of the series.
The popularity of The Hunger Games series is proof that a 7.0 reading level appeals to older teens and adults as well as middle graders. There are 2,400+ reviews for the series found on Amazon.com, which came from adults 18 and over, considering you must have a valid credit card to set up an Amazon account and only those who have valid Amazon accounts are allowed to post reviews. And according to another article written by The Atlantic Wire in their Entertainment section,
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins has surpassed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series as the best-selling books of all time—print and e-books combined—on Amazon.com, and The Hunger Games is also the most-borrowed book in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. (Doll)
So what’s my point in all this? My point is…
KNOW YOUR READER’S READING LEVEL!
As a writer of fiction, you need to be aware that understanding reading levels isn’t just for children’s books anymore. With illiteracy at an all time high, it is important to realize more than 20% of adults struggle with reading levels no higher than fifth grade (5.0), 14 percent (30 million) of adults in the U.S. are functioning at Below Basic (defined simply as “not having adequate reading skills for daily life”), and 44 million adults in the U.S. can’t read well enough to read a simple story to a child. This means they cannot:
- Understand the instructions on a medicine container
- Read stories to their children
- Read a newspaper article or a map
- Read correspondence from their bank or any government agency
- Fill out an application for work
- Read the safety instructions for operating machinery
- Compete effectively for today’s jobs
Studies show that low literacy is not the problem of immigrants, the elderly, high-school dropouts, or people whose first language is not English. Low literacy is a problem that knows no age, education, economic boundaries, or national origins. Most people with low literacy skills were born in this country or have English as their first language.
When people pick up something they cannot understand, they put it down. So it is your job, as a writer, to make sure you know your target market and their reading/comprehension level.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability is integrated into Microsoft Word, so there’s no excuse for a writer to be unaware of the readability level of their fiction piece. To turn this option on, do the following (you only need to do this once):
For Word 2003
- On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the Spelling & Grammar tab.
- Select the Check grammar with spelling check box.
- Select the Show readability statistics check box, and then click OK.
- On the Standard toolbar, click Spelling and Grammar.
When Microsoft Word finishes checking spelling and grammar, it displays
information about the reading level of the document.
- Select File > Options from the toolbar at the top of the screen.
- Click the Proofing tab from the list to the left.
- Check the box next to: Check grammar with spelling.
- Check the box next to: Show readability statistics.
- Click OK.
When you finish spell check (F7), the [Flesch-Kincaid ] readability level will now appear as well. NOTE: Word doesn’t score above grade 12. Any grade above 12 will be reported as Grade 12.
So how exactly is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability level determined? Here’s the formula:
- Calculate the average number of words used per sentence.
- Calculate the average number of syllables per word.
- Multiply the average number of words by 0.39 and add it to the average number of syllables per word multiplied by 11.8.
- Subtract 15.59 from the result.
The specific mathematical formula is:
FKRA = Flesch-Kincaid Reading Age
ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., the number of words divided by the number
ASW = Average number of Syllable per Word (i.e., the number of syllables divided
by the number of words)
Analyzing the results is a simple exercise. For instance, a score of 5.3 indicates a fifth grader in their third month of that grade would be able to read the document. The score makes it easier for teachers, parents, librarians, and others to judge the readability level of various books and texts for the students.
Other Readability Assessment Tools
Other readability assessment tools include Lexile Framework, Dale-Chall, Spache, Fry Graph, Raygor Graph, Gunning FOG, DRA, Powers-Sumner-Kearl, Coleman-Liau Index, and SMOG Index.
For more readability calculators and text tools, go to http://www.readabilityformulas.com/search/pages/Free_Readability_Calculators.
If you don’t want to wait until after you’re done writing to discover the readability level of your fiction piece, a good book to have that references words introduced by grade level (K – 6) is Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogliner (Writer’s Digest Books). Another resource is the K12 Reader website at http://www.k12reader.com/.
Interested in writing a high-low book (high interest, low reading level)? ACFWs Colorado
Springs chapter, Worship Write Witness, is conducting an “Everyone’s A Reader” novella contest (15-25,000 word YA novella or a 25-35,000 word adult novella–YA needs to be written at a 2nd-3rd grade level; Adult needs to be at a 3rd-4th grade level) to help address this very issue. The winning novella will be submitted to Harpstring, an imprint of Written World Communications, with the possibility of a contract if accepted by their review board. For more information, go to http://worshipwritewitness.acfwcolorado.com/writing_contest_2013.html.
Barry, Doug. “The Hunger Games Trilogy Has Now Outsold All the Harry Potter Books.”Jezebel. N.p., 12 Aug. 2012. Web. 13 Aug. 2013. <http://jezebel.com/5936436/the-hunger-games-trilogy-has-now-outsold-all-the-harry-potter-books>.
Doll, Jenn. “‘The Hunger Games’ Breaks the Potter Book Barrier on Amazon.” The Atlantic Wire. N.p., 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 13 Aug. 2013. <http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/08/hunger-games-breaks-potter-book-barrier-amazon/55914/>.