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.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
- 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:
Interested applicants are encouraged to review the guidelines.
If you would like to apply, please read the guidelines.
In total, nearly $650,000 was allocated by the ministry last year.
The ministry allocated nearly $650,000 last year.
Participants were asked to discuss five questions.
We asked participants to discuss five questions.
Progress can be made if communities have access to innovative ideas.
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.