Once you understand how the Lexile system works (Writing Early Readers, Part 1: Understanding Lexile Levels), the next step is to use the Lexile system to write at the desired level. This matters most when you are writing books to be read by young readers. Suppose you want to write an early reader for grades K-2. Here’s how I did it:
First, I found two early readers similar to the level I wanted to emulate. It is important to note that publishers can have very different definitions for, say, a Level 2 early reader. Penguin Young Readers’ Level 2 early readers are at about 280L while DK Readers’ Level 2 early readers featuring licensed movie characters are at about 680L. New readers can probably handle the former, but will need major help with the latter. Children like the licensed books because they like the pop culture, but as reading practice I think these books are pretty ineffective. I examined some books to find ones at an appropriate level.
I chose Little Bear by Else Holmeland Minarik and Mr. Putter and Tabby Stir the Soup by Cynthia Rylant. I checked their Lexile levels with an online tool. (Google “look up Lexile level” to find sites where you can find the levels of published books.) Little Bear is 370L and Mr. Putter is 480L. Mr. Putter is shorter, but it uses more complicated words than Little Bear. I wanted to write an early reader at a level that landed in between these two books.
I typed the entire text of each book into a word processing program (it’s not that hard – early readers are rarely over 1500 words). As I typed the books, I paid attention to how repetition is used. Using lots of repetition is a good way to help new readers develop confidence and skill. I used the software program tools to analyze word length, sentence length and chapter length in each manuscript. I not only checked the whole manuscript, but I also checked each chapter individually.
The word and sentence stats were very consistent. Both books had an average of four letters per word and seven words per sentence. Mr. Putter was about 800 words total while Little Bear was about 1500 words. The average chapter length in Mr. Putter was 170 words, while the average chapter in Little Bear was 380 words. I also looked at the longest sentence in each chapter. In Mr. Putter the longest sentences ranged from 14-26 words. The longest sentence in Little Bear was 18 words. All the sentences were broken up into short segments per line on the page.
I wrote my first early reader following these guidelines and I ran it through a Lexile measurement tool as both a whole manuscript and also chapter by chapter. (Google “Lexile measuring tool” and you will find sites where you can input a passage of text and get an approximate Lexile measurement.) The tool said mine was 400L-500L. Perfect.
I then submitted my manuscript to an agent. She loved it, but told me some of my words were too advanced for the grade level. The agent introduced me to the Children’s Writer’s Word Book (there are other similar resources) which lists reading vocabulary words associated with each grade level. For example, “declare” is a 5th grade word. From the Word Book, synonyms are: say (Kindergarten), state (1st grade), claim (2nd), announce (3rd) and proclaim (4th). You can use words at or below the desired grade level, but you’re not supposed to use words above the desired grade level. Words appear to be chosen for readability, concept and vocabulary for the grade. I reluctantly changed some of my words. I now had an early reader manuscript that children in grades K-2 could actually read. And the first and second grade teachers at my son’s school reported that the children in their classes loved it.
You don’t have to go through all this work… unless you want your book to function as an early reader. In that case you really do need to get the reading level right. It’s worth it to spend time on the initial research to learn the specifications. If the specs seem too restrictive, remember Dr. Seuss, who wrote The Cat in the Hat (430L) with a very short and simple vocabulary list. Creativity is possible no matter how strict the requirements, so make your early reader easy to read, and make it a good one.
This article was originally written for Readers’ Favorite by Donna Gielow McFarland.