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Use Microsoft Word's Reading Age Function To Vet Classroom Material

By Anne Vize

Microsoft Word has a useful function for checking the reading age of text before using it in the classroom with your students. Text which is too hard leaves students guessing when it comes to decoding and comprehension, as their reading rate and fluency is too low and meaning is lost. Check first!

Why is the Reading Age Important?

So, why should we take the time to check the reading age? The answer to this lies in an understanding of the reading process for What's the Reading Age? students.

Students who are unable to maintain a reasonable reading rate struggle to read fluently and easily. This slower rate of reading is often an indication that they are spending too much time and thought decoding each word, and not enough effort is able to be directed to comprehending the text.

By contrast, students who can read fairly quickly are able to maintain fluency and can more readily comprehend what they are reading. This makes it easier to deduce logical and inferred meaning from the text, and apply their knowledge of what they are reading to other concepts.

Put simply, a student who is reading text which is geared to a reading age above their skill level will struggle to understand what they are reading. Getting reading age right is important for students at any level - not just those who are working through the reading recovery boxes in early elementary classes.

Using Microsoft Word to Check Reading Age Levels

If the reading age or reading recovery level is not printed for you on the back of the book (and often it is not!) then give this process a go:

  • Scan or type in a section of the text into Microsoft Word. Give yourself a reasonable chunk - say around 300 words or so.
  • Make sure the part of text you have used is representative of the rest of the book and that you have taken whole sentences and paragraphs.
  • Use the tabs at the top of the screen to select 'Review'.
  • Go to the 'Spelling and Grammar' function (on the left hand side with the symbol of 'ABC') and click on it.
  • Work through the spelling and grammar notes which appear. You can simply ignore these or use them to check hat you have not entered any of the text incorrectly.

At the end of the process, you will see a box which shows readability scores - this will tell you how many words, characters, paragraphs and sentences are in the passage. It will also give you a score for the percentage of passive sentences (we know that active sentences are easier to read, and passive sentences are harder). And lastly, it will give you a grade level score for readability of the text.

This grade level score is based on the US grade system, so may differ slightly for different countries. As a general rule, add 5 to the grade score to get an actual reading age to compare to the student's actual age.

The Process in Action

I used this procedure quite a bit recently as I was writing a set of books called "Into Reading" for Phoenix Education, which were aimed at young people in high school who have a reading age that is several years below their chronological age.

As I wrote each short story or non-fiction article to include in the books, I used this system to check the reading age levels and assess my writing.

This allowed me to focus on shorter sentences, greater use of active sentences, lower use of complex multi-syllable words and simple sentence structures to create writing which was interesting and exciting, yet still easy to read. In this way, I was able to develop writing material which was at about a reading level of grade 3-6, for students who were in around grades 7-10.

You can apply the same system in your classroom, easily vetting materials and adapting them to various reading levels as needed. This process will also help you choose classroom-wide reading materials that won't frustrate the lagging readers while boring the gifted ones.