What Is Readability?

Has anyone ever said to you, “All our materials have to be written at the 6th grade level”? What does that really mean? Those grade levels are derived from readability formulas, which are mathematical formulas used to produce a numerical score. The score shows the relative difficulty of text on a continuum from easy (grade 4–6) to very hard (grade 13 and above – college level). The average reading level of American adults is about 7th to 8th grade level.

A readability score is given as a “grade level,” but a score doesn’t tell us whether an adult with a specific level of education will be able to read the text. There is no direct correspondence between an individual’s level of education and their ability to read a particular piece of text. For example, most high school graduates cannot read at the 12th grade level. Readability scores are best used to assess whether your text is in the right “ballpark” for your intended audience.

Why Is Readability Important?

Knowing the reading level of your text can give you a general idea how many people may be able to read it. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that 43% of American adults, some 93 million people, have Basic or Below Basic literacy skills.

This means it’s important to write clearly, concisely, and without jargon or difficult words if you hope to reach people who do not read easily. (Think, “Call your doctor if you have…” versus “Contact your physician if you experience…”) Readability analysis is one measure that can help you stay on track with clear writing.

Be Careful with Readability in Word Processing Programs

You may have discovered that popular word processing programs have readability functions. You may also have seen commercial readability programs. Readability tools may be fast and convenient, but they can give very inaccurate results.

Before using these programs, you need to know:

  • Which software is reliable
  • How to “clean up” a document before running it through the software
  • Which formulas are accurate and reliable
  • Which formulas are best for evaluating particular materials
  • How to interpret the results

Our Readability Services

The Clear Language Group can provide:

  • Readability analysis of your text using a variety of formulas
  • Comprehensive reports specifying recommendations to improve the reading ease of your materials
  • Consultations and short workshops on how to analyze reading level on your own