The use of WordCalc tool: Developing grade-appropriate books that children love to read! [CIES 2024 Presentation]

The ability of citizens to think critically and take a well-considered position in life is influenced by their ability to read with comprehension and by the content of what they read. WordCalc is an instrument that contributes to a body of children’s literature that is an important step to building this skill. This abstract introduces WordCalc, an advanced computer program designed to analyze linguistic features of texts. It was developed and improved in the context of two USAID-funded reading projects in the Kyrgyz Republic – Time to Read and Okuu Keremet! The very first version was produced as an Excel program under another USAID reading project in Georgia. The program addresses the lack of children’s books written in local languages, specifically Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek, in the Kyrgyz Republic. By analyzing large amounts of text, WordCalc provides local authors and publishers with language patterns that are attractive and engaging to young readers, leveled according to reading ability. The project conducted a market analysis of children’s books in 2020, revealing the scarcity of modern, locally inspired storybooks for children in schools, libraries, the market, and elsewhere. The available books predominantly consisted of outdated fairy tales and folklore, lacking consideration for the local context and culture as well as contemporary realities and topics. The majority of existing books were imported from Russia and other countries. The limited spectrum of topics highlighted the urgent need for accessible and age-appropriate literature that resonates with children’s interests, language preference and social background. Using WordCalc entails collecting as much text as possible, in different languages and for different age groups, in order to analyze text size, word and sentence counts, word length, high-frequency words and phrases for each language. Through these analyses, the program provides insight into the linguistic characteristics of text read by readers at different levels. The patterns per language and reading level enable authors to tailor their writing to the various reading levels of young readers so that children have a variety of text at the right level for them to develop their reading skill. The refinement of WordCalc resulted in the creation of a comprehensive dictionary comprised of the most frequently used words for grades 1-4 in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek, totaling 10,000 unique words. This dictionary serves as a foundational resource for creating age-appropriate content that appeals to young readers. In collaboration with linguists, the project team identified and incorporated difficult and rare words specific to grades 1-4, ensuring comprehensive coverage of a rich vocabulary. The Kyrgyz and Uzbek languages in particular face a shortage of text-based resources, including scientific papers, articles, and standardized textbooks for grades 1-4. Therefore, the project team employed a meticulous approach to creating the dictionary, leveraging the expertise of linguists to compensate for the limited resources available for compiling the dictionary. The aim was to ensure that the final product was accurate and useful. To validate the effectiveness of WordCalc as an instrument, the team conducted several reviews of more than 1,000 texts in the three languages. In Okuu Keremet!, around 40 authors and illustrators were trained to use WordCalc, and so far, it has facilitated the production of more than 1,200 new titles, specifically tailored to children’s reading levels and their linguistic context. Moving forward, WordCalc will be introduced to a wider audience, including educators, authors, publishers, and the general public. Its usefulness for creating leveled literature for children will be encouraged among other players such as publishers, textbook writers and others. For example, two big local publishing companies want to use WordCalc as a tool for quality assurance and are already using it in the book production process. WordCalc also serves as a valuable resource for analyzing existing literature for children. By applying the program to previously published books, authors and publishers can gauge whether the books are appropriately aligned with specific ages or grades; they can refine their storytelling techniques and enhance the cultural authenticity of their work. This ensures that the existing literature is adapted to meet the needs and expectations of young readers in the Kyrgyz Republic. In conclusion, WordCalc has proven to be a valuable tool to create new texts for grade 1-4 children that builds not just reading skill but comprehension and critical thinking skills which have been consistently weak in the reading assessment of children. The expansion of genres among children’s books, including information books which are very popular, expands the range of topics that children are thinking about and exposes them to new knowledge, ideas, and feelings. By redressing the lack of literature in local languages such as Kyrgyz and Uzbek, WordCalc is also contributing to the strength of these languages as it codifies a rich vocabulary among young readers across an expanding range of topics. Engaging stories in mother tongue foster a love for reading among young readers. WordCalc’s ability to sift through and analyze text in different languages is a gift to local authors and publishers who can now create “just right” books for children in the Kyrgyz Republic.