How to Write for Children: Understanding Grade Levels

Kids Writing GradesLeveling is a process of analyzing various text and determining a respective reading level. Leveled books for children are assigned a letter from A-Z, and these letters correlate to different grade levels. “A” level books are written for kindergarten and emergent (beginning to read) readers.

It is important as a children’s writer to be aware of grade levels, and of the specific vocabulary and concepts that best fit each grade. This will put you in better stead as a children’s author this way as teachers, parents, and children will be able to select books that they are more comfortable with.

Book Characteristics

Genre

This term refers to the type of text. Each reading genre has different characteristics. Some popular genres for children include:

  • Folktales
  • Fairytales
  • Fables
  • Legends
  • Myths
  • Historical Fiction
  • Modern Fantasy
  • Adventure
  • Biography
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Informational Books
  • Poetry
  • Drama

Text Structure

Text structure refers to how the text is organized. If the material is factual, authors usually write in chronological order, or use comparison/contrast, cause/effect, and problem/solution. There are often sections with headings for categories or topics. For fiction, text structure follows some type of introduction to the story, filling in background information, introducing the characters, and then leading into the events of the story. This is followed by a defining moment and some type of resolution and conclusion.

Content

The content describes the subject matter. In a non-fiction text, this is the main topic. For fiction, it is related to the setting, the plot, the problem/resolution of the characters.

Themes and Ideas

This refers to the important, “big” ideas that the author wants to convey in the text. There can be one main idea, many themes or several supporting themes to the central theme. This is the “ah ha” moment, and kids should be able to understand the reason(s) the author wrote the book, while being able to take something away from it.

Sentence Complexity and Illustrations

Writers must keep in mind the difficulty of the text for the given audience. Non-fiction writers use description and sometimes technical language, possibly incorporating charts, graphs, timelines, photos, etc. Fiction writers employ various dialog, figurative language and other literary structures to hold the interest of the reader. They often capitalize on illustrations to tell the story and have drawings, paintings or photographs to add to student’s enjoyment.

Vocabulary and Words

Vocabulary deals with the meaning behind the words used and how easy it is for the readers to understand what is written. Wording is very important as younger readers require not only shorter overall text, but shorter sentences. Books geared for younger children often repeat words, use rhyme, or may even incorporate a rebus (a picture for some words instead of the actual words themselves). These books use many high frequency words, words that are commonly used in the English language. Generally, high frequency word lists have the words broken down into grade levels. So, if you are targeting a book for a certain grade, you can incorporate these words and/or you can see which words the students should know leading up to a particular grade level.

Book and Print Features

Book and print features refer to the physical parts of the text: the length of the text and the actual size and layout of the book. The table of contents, sidebars, glossary, pronunciation guides and indices are all assorted print features that you as a writer may opt to incorporate into your text to interest the reader and aid in comprehension of the book itself.

Grade Level Helpers

If you google “frequent word lists in the English language”, you will undoubtedly come across Fry’s list of 1000 common words and Dolch’s list of common words. Dr. Edward B. Fry expanded on the Dolch sight words (the 220 most common words and 95 additional nouns in children’s reading books) to compose his list of 1000 common words. Both of these lists are worth looking into.
In addition, you can research Fountas and Pinnell, two experts in the area of reading, and examine their high frequency word lists, including words with clusters and specific content vocabulary words/grade levels, etc. This will give you a great starting point to see the types of words children at various grades are familiar with.

Content Curriculum

Common Core State Standards

Another avenue to explore is to look at the Common Core State Standards for various grade levels to see what skills are covered in general curriculum. These standards are often referred to as CCSS, an educational initiative in the US that details what K-12 students should know in mathematics and English language arts at the end of each grade. A majority of states have adapted these standards that are research-and evidence-based and aligned with college and career expectations. They are influenced by other top performing countries to prepare students for success. If you are writing books for a more global audience, you could look at the standards in that given country and/or if you are making your audience smaller, you could look at standards just for that state or for that city. Some states and cities have their own academic standards especially those that don’t follow the CCSS standards. Additionally there are standards for other academic areas and non-academic areas like the arts and physical education, etc.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

Reviewing National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies would give you some topical ideas for grade level themes concerning culture, time/continuity/change, people/places/environments, individual development and identity, power/authority/governance, individuals/groups/institutions, production/distribution/consumption, science/technology/society, global connections, and civic ideals/practices. These standards summarize what specific social studies skills are studied and at what exact grade level.

Next Generation Science Standards

You can also search the Next Generation Science Standards, standards which many states have incorporated into their grade level curriculum. This will help you to embed grade level science vocabulary into respective books.

Readability Scores

There are formal Readability Scores online that enable you to import a certain length of text, after which the reading level will be determined for you. Many of these assessments are free; others require a small fee. These are important tools to help you when writing for children, especially if you are hired to write for a specific grade level or grade range for a client.

In Conclusion

There is a need for many different types of books at every grade level. Both level and content play key roles in helping students to read; they help to get kids excited about reading and to enjoy reading and learning. The average reading range in a classroom spans five grades; two grades above the grade placement and two grades below. So in a typical fourth grade class, you will have most of the students reading at the 2nd grade through 6th grade. It is therefore important that there are books at all those levels to support the content curriculum. And it is equally important to have fiction books to “fuel the love of reading”.

I hope this article sheds a little light on how knowing about book characteristics, and specifically leveled books and grade level curriculum, can shape your writing as a children’s author.

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