By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
This is the first of two articles that look at writing readability and the various ways literacy is measured.
Writing for a diverse audience is not easy. Being able to communicate in a clear and easy to understand manner requires writing at an appropriate readability level. One way to figure that out is to use the Flesch–Kincaid grade test.
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Readability has not always been a concern for writers. In the 15th century, the average sentence length was 63 words and in the 16th century, it was 41 words.
Later, in 1820 it was 26 words, and by the 1950s it was 14 words. According to The Acropolitan on Medium, “In 1892, author Edwin Herbert Lewis wrote in his History of the English Paragraph that ‘it is a well-known fact that the English sentence has decreased in average length at least one-half in three-hundred years.’”
From a contemporary perspective, lengthy sentences are difficult to comprehend, because the subject of the sentence and the main idea of the paragraph have to be maintained while using commas, dashes, colons, or semicolons to give the sentence structure. A sentence that has 63 words can easily be broken up into three or four smaller sentences. Today, it is common to write several shorter sentences to communicate ideas in a clear and concise manner.
In addition, as sentences have shortened, overall literacy has gone up overall literacy has gone up exponentially. In the 15th century, literacy in Europe ranged between 1 percent to 17 percent, and in the 18th century, it rose to around a 50 percent average in Western Europe.
In 1870, the U.S. literacy rate was 80 percent while in the rest of the world it was around 19 percent. By 2016, the world literacy rate had risen to around 86 percent.
Readability Tests in 19th-Century Schools
Because the U.S. had such success with literacy relatively early, 19th-century schools tried to figure out how to incrementally introduce more challenging texts to their students. That led to a variety of readability tests and eventually in 1948 to the Flesch Reading Ease test.
The Flesch Reading Ease test was developed by Rudolf Flesch, a writing expert and lawyer who taught and wrote about the importance of reading for decades. He had to flee his native Austria because of rise of the Nazis in the late 1930s. He eventually made it to the U.S. and got a Ph.D. in library science in 1944.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test a Collaboration with the US Navy
After he devised his Flesch Reading Ease test, Flesch went on to write the hugely influential book “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1955. He then collaborated with the United States Navy in 1975 to create the Flesch–Kincaid grade level test.
The Flesch-Kincaid grade level test is a mathematical formula that scores the grade level of text, similar to the Flesch Reading Ease. The basics of the formula take the total number of syllables and divide them by the total number of words.
In general, easy readability will have many short sentences with words that have one or two syllables. Reading that is more difficult will have longer, more complex sentences with multisyllabic words.
When students begin to read in kindergarten or first grade, the level of their score is near zero. It rises to 8 in eighth grade, the typical reading level of most Americans.
Scores above 8 are for more technical types of reading such as scholarly or cultural articles that range between 9 and 11. College texts and academic papers are in the 12 range and above.
The PIAAC Assessment Is Another Way to Gauge Literacy
Another way to look at how people read and their overall literacy is to look at the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) literacy assessment. This assessment, given in mainly Europe and some Asian and Latin American countries, tries to “assess and compare the basic skills and the broad range of competencies of adults around the world.”
The literacy assessment involves “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in the society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” This is a good benchmark to figure out how much of a population has reached acceptable literacy standards and how much of a population has not.
In the 2012-2014 PIAAC literacy assessment, the U.S. scored in the average range compared to other countries. Japan and Finland scored the highest, while Spain and Italy were at the bottom.
The U.S. score is acceptable compared to other developed countries. But the really valuable information comes from the map of which states and counties scored Level 1 or below, Level 2 or below, or Level 3 and above.
A state scoring Level 2 and below means, “Adults at this level can be considered nearing proficiency but still struggling to perform tasks with text-based information. Such adults may be able to read print and digital texts, relate multiple pieces of information within or across a couple documents, compare and contrast, and draw simple inferences.” Level 3 or above is considered proficient. So the percentage of a state that ranks at Level 2 and below is a concern.
A look at an interactive PIAAC map of the U.S. shows how states score in relation to Level 2 or below. States that align directly to the U.S. average of 32 percent (the percent of the state that is not literacy proficient) include Arizona, New York, Virginia and Illinois.
States whose literacy rate is 15 percent worse than the average include most of the Deep South and West Virginia. The few states that have around a 15 percent better literacy include Washington, Oregon and California.
The US Standard for Readability Is the 8th Grade Level
With 32 percent of Americans not meeting the PIAAC standards for literacy proficiency, it makes sense that the standard for readability is the 8th grade level. This means the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test is a helpful tool to check the readability of a writer’s work because it has been included in the Microsoft Word application for years. After running spellcheck, it automatically provides the readability score.
In Part II, we will go over 16 articles, what their Flesch-Kincaid grade level scores are, what this means and how to use the score without inhibiting your writing.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about the arts and culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
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