One of these kids will probably graduate high school on time. The other may not. Can you guess which one will succeed?
These are third graders at John Tobin Elementary in Cambridge, recorded in a story last year by WBUR’s Monica Brady-Myerov. And, OK, we don’t know for sure what will happen to either of them. But the data show, time and again, that a third grader’s reading skills are the best indicator of how he or she will perform in high school.
Third grade is a critical year. “When they leave third grade, there is a major shift — from learning to read, to reading to learn,” said Jaime Frost, a literacy coach, in Monica’s story.
A new study (PDF), commissioned by Boston nonprofit Strategies for Children and conducted by Harvard researchers, put a gloomy statistic in the spotlight: 43 percent of third graders in the state can’t read at the third-grade level. The numbers get even worse for minority students.
Researchers started by examining MCAS scores for every kid in Massachusetts. I asked the lead author, Nonie Lesaux, how a standardized test could possibly gauge a kid’s reading skills. Basically, she says, a student reads a passage and then has to answer questions about that passage.
If you’re not a proficient reader, Lesaux says: “You will have missed something. You won’t have picked up a certain amount of nuance. You won’t have made an inference that you were supposed to make. You might not have understood some figurative language that was in there, which hinders your ability to answer that question.
“You might just not have read it fast enough, so that you had the leftover energy to devote to making sense of it. The one thing is, if your reading is too slow, then you can’t remember what you read from the beginning to the end.”
Lesaux says three-quarters of children who fail the MCAS in third grade will struggle throughout their academic career.
But writing a test to be understood by the “average” third grader is really tricky. Millions of dollars and a lot of research goes into writing clear, culture-neutral, readable tests and textbooks.
How Is Readable Defined? What’s A “Third-Grade Reading Level?”
I called Bill Dubay, a man who has studied and written about readability for years. It turns out you can reduce any literary passage to a few mathematical formulas. The most famous is the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.
Rudolf Flesch was an Austrian immigrant who learned English as a second language. He was frustrated by the unnecessary complexity of English — in newspapers, textbooks, insurance policies, you name it.
Flesch devoted his professional life to campaigning for simpler, more readable language. His most celebrated book is “Why Johnny Can’t Read (And What You Can Do About It).”
In the midcentury, Flesch discovered that the average number of words per sentence, plus the average number of syllables per word, plus a bit of arithmetic, generates a number that equates to an elementary school grade level. And it’s wicked accurate.
(0.39 x Average Sentence Length) + (11.8 x Average Syllables Per Word) – 15.59
Try it on your own writing — it’s built into Microsoft Word (here’s how to do it).
Dubay says a more accurate (but less popular) method involves even less math: the Dale-Chall formula, which compares a text against a list of words that are simple and familiar to most fourth graders. The more familiar words, the easier the text is to read. (The original list contained about 1,000 words; it has been expanded and updated.)
The third well-respected gauge of readability is the Gunning fog index, which you can calculate on scratch paper (updated, thanks Bill):
- Take 100 continuous words from a passage.
- Grade level = 0.4 x (average sentence length in words + number of hard words)
- Where hard words = all words in the sample of three or more syllables
Amazingly, all three of these methods are more than 60 years old, and despite modest improvements, they remain the gold standards for measuring readability.
Of course, if you’re writing a text for a third grader and those numbers come back too high, you can’t just slash syllables and add in monosyllabic words. It won’t work. That’s why, Dubay says, it’s much harder to make something readable than to figure out how readable something is.
An eighth grader should be able to read this article, which weighs in at 735 words, 46 sentences and 15.5 words per sentence.
- “The Principles of Readability” by William H. DuBay (2004) (PDF)
- Radio Boston: Improving 3rd Graders’ Reading Skills
- Boston Globe: Grade 3 students lagging on reading