This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 2, 1998

September 2, 1998 - Reading Levels

I started writing newspaper columns in 1987. Shortly afterward, I stumbled across a great little piece of software called PC-Style. You ran it against a text file, and it told you what grade level the piece was.

In general, the more short words you used, the better you scored. It was better to use fewer words in a sentence, rather than more.

As a fledgling newspaper columnist, I found the software useful. If I scored high on the "Fog Index," the average reader probably wouldn't know what I was talking about. I was trying to train myself to write clean and comprehensible English. PC-Style helped.

I sometimes wonder how publishers determine reading level. Some books say right on the dust jacket that they're "Easy," meaning that they're for children just learning how to read. Others say, "3rd-4th grade."

I suppose publishers use something like PC-Style to come up with these ratings. I don't always agree with them, though. You shouldn't, either.

Reading level ratings always raises two questions in my mind. First, how do you tell if a particular book is too hard for your child?

Second, so what if it is?

But let's start with the first one. I have a nice little hand-out produced (I think) by a neighboring library. I regret that I don't know the author. It's titled: "How Can You Tell Whether a Book is on Your Children's Reading Level?"

"Some educators suggest using the 'rule of thumb.' Have your child read a page of the book aloud. Have her hold up one finger for each word she doesn't know. If she holds up four fingers and a thumb before the end of the page, the book is probably too difficult for her to read alone. However, it might be a great book to read aloud."

There's some good advice in that passage. Particularly for young readers who don't much care for books yet, this is a quick check on how frustrating a particular book might be.

And note another bit of good advice: there's a difference between what you read, and what you hear.

My reading vocabulary is much greater than my speaking vocabulary. That's true for most literate adults. My eye recognizes words that my tongue has trouble with.

But for children, their HEARING vocabulary is often richer yet. That's not too surprising: think about how we learn to speak. Nobody gives infants a series of thorough definitions, carefully built up in logical and consistent sequence. Our kids get tossed bodily into the sea of language -- total immersion.

I find it fascinating to watch how people talk to babies. Some people talk baby talk. Some speak slang. A rare few speak grammatically.

And yet, somehow (usually) by about the age of 4 or 5, almost all children demonstrate a remarkably sure grasp of syntax and meaning. The more exposure to language they get, and the sooner they get it, the stronger that grasp can be.

That's one of the reasons my wife and I have always read aloud to our kids, and why we didn't limit our selections to books of the "One Fish, Two Fish" variety. (Although we didn't rule them out, either.) As a result, Maddy and Perry (ages 10 and 4) do have astonishingly varied vocabularies.

That leads me to my second point. Suppose you find your children reading something that is clearly way past their reading level.

Encourage them! I can remember working my way through some books almost sentence by sentence, with a heavy reliance on a dictionary. I still like to keep a dictionary handy. (Warning: a good dictionary can be more interesting than the book you're trying to read.)

Finally, "reading level" is a deeply individual, profoundly personal thing. It has no necessary connection with your age, and it can change overnight. Just one book can spark a bonfire of linguistic acquisitiveness. I think of my daughter, who raced from elementary to secondary reading skills in what seemed like a matter of days: from American Girls to the Animorphs series to Star Trek novels. Now she can read anything she wants to read.

USA Today, the most successful newspaper in America, is written for a 7th grade reading level. We can do better than that.

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