What is readability?

By Nicole Salvitti and Lisa Simon

Think about something you read recently. How did you come to read it?  Did it catch your eye and then, after reading a bit, you decided it was worth reading?  Is it something friends or colleagues have been reading and talking about? Did you hear a review that made it sound interesting? Did you choose it because you knew it would be a challenge or maybe just because you wanted a fun read at the beach?

All of these questions relate to readability, but too often that term is reduced to mean only the “level” of a book.   Readability, however, is much more complex (Level, a term used among educators and now publishers to describe a book’s purported difficulty, is also extremely complex.  We have so many opinions and concerns about the way “level” is used and the impact it has on readers that we want to discuss that in a separate post.  But back to readability….)

What is readability?  Readability refers to the potential for connection between a specific book and a specific reader. In a real way, readability means the possibility that a reader sees in a book, story, poem, or essay to add to his or her life.   Readability is a friendship in the form of a text and, like all relationships, it encompasses so many variables that standardized procedures can never make a perfect match (although, like online dating sites, they will promise they can).

Definitely, text difficulty is part of readability, but it is dangerous to make assumptions (or use a formula) to determine difficulty because there are so many other factors at play. In addition to the ease with which readers navigate difficult vocabulary, readability involves a reader’s ability to approach a particular text with confidence, interest, and a willingness to persevere even when it gets difficult. For example, have you ever seen one of those video game code books?  Neither of us can get through even a page because they are so boring to us and disconnected from our lives.  But in Nicole’s classroom, students, including those labeled as struggling, read them avidly.  So, the same books that have low readability for us, have high readability for many of Nicole’s middle schoolers. This is because readability exists only in the interaction between reader and text; decontextualized, “readability” has no meaning.

Of course there are times when a kid does struggle in a very real way with reading and writing, but we’ve found over and over that when teachers help kids see what they are already good at and present them with a text that speaks to what they care about, the same readers can understand texts that may otherwise have seemed unreadable. Nicole saw this phenomenon when she used the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  Several of her eighth graders, labeled “struggling readers” by the school, were experienced readers of graphic novels. Because they were interested in the genre, these students were able to confidently tackle this challenging book, and they fell in love with it.  They were actually reading in secret, sneaking ahead in the book, and hyping up the rest of the class about “everything they were about to read.”  It was literally all Nicole could do to stop these kids from reading ahead, kids who normally avoided reading books given to them in school.  

Readability can make your teaching stronger.  Taking advantage of readability requires that we pay attention to what kids are already reading, including things we might not find readable or even consider reading - like graphic novels, video game code books, and even social media. We need to look for and learn how students are engaging with texts in their real lives, and we need to recognize and value those different texts. Then we can help bridge the gap between struggling readers and books we want them to read in school. 

This is crucial because it will push many of us to recognize our biases for or against different genres or writing styles and to remember that a book’s perceived value is situated within a system influenced by social constructs that value Eurocentric styles, rhetoric, history, and genres. When we disrupt and question these biases (things many students are already doing), we can welcome in a multitude of genres that depict diverse characters, stories, and language. And we are better able to help students find pathways into reading, to find textual friendships, even soul mates!  In this regard, Story Shares has great potential as a classroom resource because it is so attentive to increasing the kinds of readings it offers (fantasy, horror, romance, historical fiction) and to including diverse representations of characters and communities.

How do you find good texts for your students?  And, equally important, how do you help them develop skills in finding books they want to engage with? We draw from our combined 22 years of working with readers of all levels, backgrounds, abilities, and interests, to recommend the following:  

  • Help readers labeled as struggling develop an interest  and confidence in reading by presenting them with many different types of texts (some of which may be different from books we would normally find in a classroom, such as graphic novels).  
  • Develop and support a culture in your classroom where reading is used for personal growth and social connections, not just for testing or to get to a higher “level.”  
  • Bridge the gap between what students are reading and experiencing in their own lives and what they're reading in school so they can see how reading connects to something bigger than simply what’s contained within the walls of the classroom.
  • Read, read, read, read.  Just like students, teachers need to read as much as they can, especially chapter books and YA literature. Take advantage of the marketing research bookstores and libraries have done and note what they are promoting and read some of those books.
  • And, finally, recognize our biases, note the silences in our classroom offerings, and work to bring in a diversity of styles, characters, and genres to the classroom. 

If we want our students to engage in reading, they must be able to see themselves as readers and see how the reading work they are already doing is valuable.  They must have the confidence to open a book, a Story Shares story, an article, or a poem and see its relevance to their lives.  To support them in this we need to remember that readability is complex, that boiling it down to a number or letter grade is a disservice to everyone.  And we need to highlight and advocate for readability’s complexity with students and colleagues.  By expanding our understanding of what makes a book ‘readable’, we can better support students who have for so long seen themselves as struggling.  

 

Louise Baigelman