Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Flesch-Kincaid Levels for Writers

A while ago, I found a nifty website that uses an excerpt to determine reading level on a range called Flesch-Kincaid. This scale/formula uses syllable count and word length to give you a number that’s supposed to correspond to grade level.

After doing some copy-and-paste, I discovered that my last fantasy book came up with a level of 7, just about right for the target audience. This blog’s posts clock in around 10-12 (so if you're under age sixteen, this is too advanced for you--go away). My final Eastern World Religions paper on bacon in world religions was a 15, which probably makes it the most complex block of text written about bacon in the history of the world.

Except then I used Word’s Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics on the same documents. The book was a 4,  the blog averaged 6.5, and my paper was barely past high school standards, at 12.1. Another online Flesch-Kincaid calculator put those same excerpts out as 3.7, 9.1, and 13.6.

What is going on here?

Basically, I have no idea. There’s a set formula for the Flesch-Kincaid method. This one.

Probably the only time you will see a formula on this blog.
That means that both the website and Word should be putting out the same number. I can think of a few possibilities for the differences (treatment of proper nouns, difference in how they deal with syllable counts in unrecognized words. etc), but it still doesn't explain everything.

I realized after an Internet search that I had accidentally stumbled on a point of great contention. On official Flesch-Kincaid-using sites, some books line up very nicely. Black Beauty, for example, is a 4, and level 2 contained mostly short fables and fairy tales.

For others, usefulness is questionable. Sure, maybe a 6th grader could read The Illiad according to sentence structure…but what twelve-year-old wants to? And would anyone want to explain to me how The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ended up with a level of 4 while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn jumped up to a 10? Either Twain dumped the entire contents of an SAT prep vocab list into Huck, or subject matter somehow comes into consideration. (The site never mentions this in their methodology explanation, so maybe I’m just crazy.)
On more unofficial sites, the confusion becomes apparent. A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner is listed at Level 7, while Stephen King’s books pull in somewhere between 5 and 6. The many one-syllable words in Green Eggs and Ham give it a negative score, -1.3, so kids better be reading that a year and a half before first grade, or else.

All over the Internet, people are concerned about this. “Are there any other scales that are better?” “This doesn’t make any sense!” “How do I know what level my story should be?” “Oh no my novel for adults is at level four and that must mean I’m stupid and don’t know how to use words and I’ll never be a real writer so I’ll just give up now and live on the streets!”

There is clearly only one solution: panic.

Just kidding. But here are some general guidelines when using (or not using) readability statistics:
  • Reading levels are actually important for younger kids. Picture books are read aloud by parents, so those don't matter as much. But there’s a difference between an easy reader, a middle grade book, and a chapter book meant for 5th and 6th graders, and all the degrees in between. If you’re writing for kids younger than grade 5, pay attention to the stats. If not, approach them with an entire shaker of salt.
  • Interest level is always more important than reading level. You might have to make some shorter sentences or cut out some bigger words if the reading level is too high. But that is significantly easier to fix than realizing no kid that age would be interested in the subject of your book.
  • Teachers are an incredibly helpful resource, because they know kids, and unlike parents, they’ve been trained in how kids read as well. This makes them a reading level/interest level double whammy. Give a teacher a chapter of your book and ask if it’s something a [insert age] kid could read. Whatever you do, don’t ignore their opinion. They’re almost always right.
  • Trust your instincts. Did I really need to check my books’ reading level to know if middle schoolers would read them? Nope. I work with them, I know what they like, I read a lot of other books aimed at that audience. If I decided to, say, write a book for second graders, who I know next to nothing about, then I’d have a lot more work to do, and reading level stats might help me out.
Whatever you do, calm down. And maybe count the syllables in Huckleberry Finn for me.

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