Author Archives: clad

What does “grade reading level” mean?

Grade reading levels are research-based benchmarks that help teachers choose texts at suitable levels of difficulty for students at various reading ages.

You can use readability formulas to find out roughly how many years of education a person would need to fluently read the material you are drafting.

The formulas, such as Flesch-Kincaid and the SMOG index, are based on sentence length and the number of syllables in words. The longer the sentences are, and the more long words there are per sentence, the higher the grade reading level.

Beyond the formulas

Many factors that formulas can’t measure have a big impact on the reading level of a text. These factors include:

  • Organization and ease of navigation
  • Tone and ‘voice’
  • Sentence structure
  • Word familiarity
  • Use of graphics
  • Use of type and ‘white space’.

Read our quick tips to see how you can improve these features of your writing.

Back to Tips & Tools

How do I choose the right reading level for my audience?

The Grade Reading Level that you aim for depends on:

  • The reading ability of your audience
  • How familiar the readers are with the subject matter
  • How motivated they are to understand and act on the information you are giving them.

If you have a highly educated audience, don’t assume that you should write at a college reading level! Unless they are reading specialized information in a discipline they were trained for, people prefer to read several grades below their actual level of education. In fact, most mass-circulation publications such as newspapers, magazines, and popular works of fiction are written at a Grade 7 – 10 reading level. In today’s world, people don’t want to wade through dense, complex prose. Everyone has too much information to cope with.

This chart shows the reading level ranges that plain language experts recommend for public information:

Grade reading level Type of information
Grade 5 – 6 Essential information for a diverse public, including marginal readers and people who are learning English as a second language
Grade 7 – 9 Information intended for the general public that introduces new terms and concepts or specialized subject matter
Grade 10 – 12

 

Specialized information intended for an audience of fluent readers
Grade 13 – 15 Specialized information for an audience that is well-informed in the subject area

Back to Tips & Tools

How do I measure the reading level?

We recommend the fast and reliable tool at https://readability-score.com. It’s free for pasting in passages that you want to quickly check. It even tests websites. And for a small fee you can use it to test PDFs and bulk Word files.

There is a readability tool built into Microsoft Word. We find its performance in measuring reading level is not always reliable. However it is useful for checking average sentence length and the amount of passive voice in your sentences (keep this under 10%). To use the tool, you must click “Check grammar and spelling” and “Check readability statistics” in Word’s Proofing Options.

Editing software

You can also buy editing software as an add-on to your regular word processing program. Editing software gives you continuous feedback on your reading level and guidance on your style as you draft.

We recommend Stylewriter by Editor Software in the U.K. We have used it and believe it provides good value to writers who have already had some clear language training and who want to keep getting better. (Full disclosure: We get a commission for recommending this product.) Click here for a free trail.

Testing your writing with typical readers

Nothing beats testing your writing with a sample of your intended readers. Clear Language and Design offers a full range of advice on field or usability testing. In the online world, this is called user experience (UX).

For a good overview of user experience testing techniques and when to use them, visit the website of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Back to Tips & Tools

Is your reading level too high? Use these tips to get it down.

Organization

The research says logical organization is the overriding factor when it comes to reading comprehension. And by ‘logical’ we mean logical from the reader’s point of view. Analyze your audience. Write the way they think. Use frequent, meaningful subheadings to help them navigate your document.

Sentence length

Readability researcher Rudolph Flesch found that people start to experience reading difficulty when sentence length reaches about 20 words. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 words. Break up sentences containing more than one idea.

Example—before:
Expressive arts is a client-centered, arts-based, community-oriented program that works with the immigrant and refugee women to address issues of safety both at home and in the larger community, and to reduce social isolation by bringing newcomer women together to counteract the isolation in their own communities.

[1 sentence – 47 words, Grade Reading Level 25]

Example—after:
Expressive Arts is a client-centered, arts-based, community-oriented program. It works with immigrant and refugee women to address issues of safety, both at home and in the larger community. Expressive Arts also works to reduce social isolation. The program does this by bringing newcomer women together to counteract the isolation in their own communities.

[4 sentences – average length 13 words, Grade Reading Level 12]

Long or unfamiliar words

Words that have more than two syllables raise your readability score. Substitute shorter, more familiar words whenever you can. We’ve compiled a thesaurus of about 600 common words and phrases that have shorter, more familiar alternatives.

Download the CLAD Thesaurus as a PDF.

More tips:

  • Avoid Latinate words such as “prior” and “de facto” and Latin-based short forms like “i.e.,” “e.g.,” and “etc.”
  • Avoid jargon of all kinds. If you have to use a word that is unfamiliar to your audience, explain it.
  • Avoid acronyms or initials that stand for long, complicated program names, job titles, scientific concepts, financial products, and the like. Spell it out for people. These short forms are too hard to remember unless all your readers are seasoned insiders.

Tone and voice

If your writing feels distant, bureaucratic and vague, your readers will give up and your message will be wasted.

Watch out especially for the passive voice in your writing. Prefer the active voice. Here are some examples of how to turn passive constructions into active ones:


Passive:

Interested applicants are encouraged to review the guidelines.

Active:

If you would like to apply, please read the guidelines.


Passive:

In total, nearly $650,000 was allocated by the ministry last year.

Active:

The ministry allocated nearly $650,000 last year.


Passive:

Participants were asked to discuss five questions.

Active:

We asked participants to discuss five questions.


Passive:

Progress can be made if communities have access to innovative ideas.

Active:

Communities can make progress if they have access to innovative ideas.

Use of type, white space, and graphics

Have you ever read the small print on the back of your credit card statement or in an insurance policy? No? Well you’re not alone. Most readers get discouraged when they are confronted with dense ‘walls of text’ where there is no way to navigate and no place for the eye to rest.

To counter this problem:

  • Use a type size and style that does not require a person over the age of forty to put on their reading glasses.
  • Use frequent, meaningful subheadings to help your reader navigate through the text.
  • Set type justified on the left and ‘ragged’ or unjustified on the right. The uneven white space at the end of the line serves as a place marker as the reading eye moves to the next line.

Use graphics to illustrate, not to decorate:

  • Watch out for heavy, dark screens that lower the contrast between the type and the background.
  • Don’t overlay type with graphic elements such as patterns or pictures.
  • Place graphics as close as possible to the text that they are supposed to elucidate.

Back to Tips & Tools

Tips & Tools

Copyright ©2015 Clear Language And Design

What does “grade reading level” mean?

How do I choose the right reading level for my audience?

How do I measure the reading level?

Is your reading level too high? Use these tips to get it down.


What does “grade reading level” mean?

Grade reading levels are research-based benchmarks that help teachers choose texts at suitable levels of difficulty for students at various reading ages.

You can use readability formulas to find out roughly how many years of education a person would need to fluently read the material you are drafting.

The formulas, such as Flesch-Kincaid and the SMOG index, are based on sentence length and the number of syllables in words. The longer the sentences are, and the more long words there are per sentence, the higher the grade reading level.

Beyond the formulas

Many factors that formulas can’t measure have a big impact on the reading level of a text. These factors include:

  • Organization and ease of navigation
  • Tone and ‘voice’
  • Sentence structure
  • Word familiarity
  • Use of graphics
  • Use of type and ‘white space’.

Read our quick tips to see how you can improve these features of your writing.

Return to top of page


How do I choose the right reading level for my audience?

The Grade Reading Level that you aim for depends on:

  • The reading ability of your audience
  • How familiar the readers are with the subject matter
  • How motivated they are to understand and act on the information you are giving them.

If you have a highly educated audience, don’t assume that you should write at a college reading level! Unless they are reading specialized information in a discipline they were trained for, people prefer to read several grades below their actual level of education. In fact, most mass-circulation publications such as newspapers, magazines, and popular works of fiction are written at a Grade 7 – 10 reading level. In today’s world, people don’t want to wade through dense, complex prose. Everyone has too much information to cope with.

This chart shows the reading level ranges that plain language experts recommend for public information:

Grade reading level Type of information
Grade 5 – 6 Essential information for a diverse public, including marginal readers and people who are learning English as a second language
Grade 7 – 9 Information intended for the general public that introduces new terms and concepts or specialized subject matter
Grade 10 – 12 Specialized information intended for an audience of fluent readers
Grade 13 – 15 Specialized information for an audience that is well-informed in the subject area

Return to top of page


How do I measure the reading level?

We recommend the fast and reliable tool at https://readability-score.com. It’s free for pasting in passages that you want to quickly check. It even tests websites. And for a small fee you can use it to test PDFs and bulk Word files.

There is a readability tool built into Microsoft Word. We find its performance in measuring reading level is not always reliable. However it is useful for checking average sentence length and the amount of passive voice in your sentences (keep this under 10%). To use the tool, you must click “Check grammar and spelling” and “Check readability statistics” in Word’s Proofing Options.

Editing software

You can also buy editing software as an add-on to your regular word processing program. Editing software gives you continuous feedback on you reading level and guidance on your style as you draft.

We recommend by Stylewriter Editor Software in the U.K. We have used it and believe it provides good value to writers who have already had some clear language training and who want to keep getting better. (Full disclosure: We get a commission for recommending this product.) Click for a free trial.

Testing your writing with typical readers

Nothing beats testing your writing with a sample of your intended readers. Clear Language and Design offers a full range of advice on field and usability testing. In the online world, this is called user experience (UX).

For a good overview of user experience testing techniques and when to use them, visit the website of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Return to top of page


Is your reading level too high? Use these tips to get it down.

Organization

The research says logical organization is the overriding factor when it comes to reading comprehension. And by ‘logical’ we mean logical from the reader’s point of view. Analyze your audience. Write the way they think. Use frequent, meaningful subheadings to help them navigate your document.

Sentence length

Readability researcher Rudolph Flesch found that people start to experience reading difficulty when sentence length reaches about 20 words. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 words. Break up sentences containing more than one idea.

Example—before:
Expressive arts is a client-centered, arts-based, community-oriented program that works with the immigrant and refugee women to address issues of safety both at home and in the larger community, and to reduce social isolation by bringing newcomer women together to counteract the isolation in their own communities.

[1 sentence – 47words, Grade Reading Level 25]

Example—after:
Expressive Arts is a client-centered, arts-based, community-oriented program. It works with immigrant and refugee women to address issues of safety, both at home and in the larger community. Expressive Arts also works to reduce social isolation. The program does this by bringing newcomer women together to counteract the isolation in their own communities.

[4 sentences – average length 13 words, Grade Reading Level 12]

Long or unfamiliar words

Words that have more than two syllables raise your readability score. Substitute shorter, more familiar words whenever you can. We’ve compiled a thesaurus of about 600 common words and phrases that have shorter, more familiar alternatives.

Download CLAD Thesaurus as a PDF

More tips:

  • Avoid Latinate words such as “prior” and “de facto” and Latin-based short forms like “i.e.,” “e.g.,” and “etc.”
  • Avoid jargon of all kinds. If you have to use a word that is unfamiliar to your audience, explain it.
  • Avoid acronyms or initials that stand for long, complicated program names, job titles, scientific concepts, financial products, and the like. Spell it out for people. These short forms are too hard to remember unless all your readers are seasoned insiders.

Tone and voice

If your writing feels distant, bureaucratic and vague, your readers will give up and your message will be wasted.

Watch out especially for the passive voice in your writing. Prefer the active voice. Here are some examples of how to turn passive constructions into active ones:

Passive:
Interested applicants are encouraged to review the guidelines.

Active:
If you would like to apply, please read the guidelines.


Passive:
In total, nearly $650,000 was allocated by the ministry last year.

Active:
The ministry allocated nearly $650,000 last year.


Passive:
Participants were asked to discuss five questions.

Active:
We asked participants to discuss five questions.


Passive:
Progress can be made if communities have access to innovative ideas.

Active:
Communities can make progress if they have access to innovative ideas.

Return to top of page

Newsletter – June 2004

 

graphic of CLAD logo
Clear Language and Design
Letter  #1 June 2004

 

Welcome to our first electronic newsletter!Clients and friends like to hear from us now and then — to get tips and reminders, find out about resources, or hear what’s new in the growing world of clear communication. We plan to send our newsletter three times a year. Please forward it to colleagues who might find it helpful!In this issue:Two myths about plain language

What’s new in our resource collection

Coming soon… The CLAD Readability Mark

To go directly to an article, just click on the title.

Two myths about plain language

by Sally McBeth, Manager, Clear Language and Design

photo of Sally McBeth I’ve been training a lot of people lately, especially in the municipal and provincial governments here in Ontario. It’s encouraging to see that there’s renewed interest in clarity in our public service. Study after study shows that clear communication creates efficiency and saves millions of dollars. What’s not to like about that?

Yet in my workshops I’m still hearing some reservations about plain language. And I take these concerns very seriously, because they always come from people who care deeply about words. Here are two of the most common, and how I respond.

“Plain language could force us to ‘dumb down’ what we need to say.”

First, last, and always, clarity is about writing for your audience. In workshops, I read aloud from a “plain language website” that Fermilab, the big nuclear physics research facility, has put up for amateur physics buffs. The writing is lucid, tight, and graceful – but completely incomprehensible to the lay reader. That’s okay with me. I’m not the audience. Fermilab has carefully defined the audience for this site as amateur nuclear physicists – and those folks all know what words like ‘supersymmetry’ and ‘w-w-photon’ mean. They don’t define them, and that’s okay with me too. Plain language means that you do not condescend to readers by telling them what they already know.

But what if Fermilab had to make an announcement to the media about an important discovery? Would they define ‘supersymmetry’ for the general public? Of course they would.

“Plain language is only an issue for people with poor literacy skills.”

Tell that to the amateur nuclear physicists! Everybody benefits from clarity. Think about the busy cabinet minister rushing from meeting to media scrum with a briefing note in his hand. He has seconds to master the information, answer tricky questions accurately. Does he want paragraphs of background he already knows? Does he have time for bureaucratic padding?

Think of the calm, clear concision of Dr. Sheila Basrur during Toronto’s recent SARS crisis. This public health leader won the respect of the province for her ability to keep decision makers, health care workers, and the general public in the picture. She told the story without equivocation, bafflegab, or clinical jargon. Plain language is about public safety – for everybody.

Now think about your own reading habits. How many times have you opened an e-mail from a colleague and wished they would get to the point? More and more CEOs are refusing to read long-winded memos. Using plain language is a way of showing respect for your co-workers. It shows that you value their time.

In the next newsletter, I’ll explore some of the myths about measuring documents for readability.

Return to Table of Contents

What’s new in our resource collection

Books

E-Writing,
by Dianna Booher. New York: Pocket Books, 2001

Poor use of e-mail is the loudest complaint we hear in workshops about office communication. This book covers all of the common mistakes (rambling, unstructured messages, sloppy spelling, too much informality) and gives many great suggestions for getting the most out of this medium.

Presenting numbers, tables, and charts, by Sally Bigwood and Melissa Spore. New York: Oxford, 2003.

People often ask us how to present numbers clearly. Senior CLAD Associate Tannis Atkinson recently attended a workshop on Plain Figures by one of the authors of this excellent book, which outlines many ways to make sure your charts, graphs, and tables tell the story you want to tell.

Websites

www.plainlanguagenetwork.org

We often tell people about The Plain Language Association, an international network of people who care about clear communication. Their website includes lots of free advice and resources, news about government initiatives around the world, and lists of relevant organizations. Non-members are welcome to join a lively email discussion group.

www.w3.org/WAI/

The Website Accessibility Initiative is an excellent resource for people working to make the web accessible to people with disabilities. This site includes the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, answers to common questions, news, discussion groups, and resources and tools.

Return to Table of Contents

Coming soon…The CLAD Readability Mark!

This fall, CLAD will start offering a new service: The CLAD Readability Mark.

Are you proud of the clear language work going on in your organization? Do you have a document that you feel deserves recognition from acknowledged experts in clarity? Starting this September, CLAD will assess your documents and, should you qualify, award a “seal of approval” that you can display on your website or publication. We’ll be telling you more in our next newsletter, and posting all the information on our website:

http://clad.tccld.org.

Stay tuned!

Clear Language and Design

269 Gerrard Street East, Second Floor
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2G3 Canada
Phone: (416) 968 – 7227
E-mail: clad@idirect.ca

Copyright © 2008 Clear Language and Design, Toronto Centre for Community Learning & Development