Testing Readability Levels for Comprehension (Part II)

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

This is the second of two articles that look at writing readability and the various ways literacy is tested. In Part I, we went over the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test, what it is, what it scores and why the average score for Americans is an 8th grade reading level. We also went over the PIACC literacy assessment and how this transnational competency assessment revealed that 32% of Americans do not meet the standard literacy proficiency. Now we will go over 16 articles, what their Flesch-Kincaid grade level scores are and how to apply these scores to your writing without inhibiting creativity.

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Testing Multiple Articles for Their Grade Level and Readability

To provide examples of the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test, I tested the following educational, cultural, sports, business and medical articles using MS Word.

Educational Articles

Cultural Articles

Sports Articles

Business Articles

Medical Articles Most of the 16 articles reviewed scored between 8 and 12. That means the reading levels of those articles are between the 8th grade and 12th grade levels, or typical high school reading levels.

High-Scoring Articles

If we look at the articles with higher scores, two of them are high because of the authors’ own writing style and two are high because they are about a specific topic and use technical language. I wrote two of the high-scoring articles: “Anton Bruckner: When Politics Alter a Musical Reputation” and “Who Will Compose the Next Great Classical Requiem?” These articles are about Western classical music and have a lot of multisyllabic terms; names of Western classical composers, the titles of the compositions discussed in the articles, and specific musical terms. For the most part, the sentence length in these articles is typical, nothing over 16 words. However, with so many complex words and a writing style that is more cultural than straightforward business writing, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level for both is above 12. In the two other high-scoring articles, one about soccer and one about economics, the scores come more from the style of the writer and player than from the complexities of the articles. “Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur to clinch Champions League title” is a straightforward article about the 2019 Champions League final. The article is noteworthy because there are players with multisyllabic names and the author longer than normal sentences. The article “All 50 U.S. states shed jobs in April: Labor Department” by Dan Burns has the highest score of all the articles, a 14. This score is interesting because the article uses economics terms. So they are unique to economics and multisyllabic, but the writer also uses long sentences which create a high score. The author could easily have broken up some of the sentences to create a score of about 9 and make the article a little easier to read.

Several Articles Had Medium Scores for Readability Due to Long Sentences

There are several articles that scored between 10 and 12; most of them are in this range because of long sentences. The first article, “What Are the Origins of Readability?” is a good In-depth article that explains readability tests including the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test. This article’s score of 11 is appropriate for the topic, context and writing style. The next two articles between 10 and 12 are interesting because their scores are mainly as a result of the author’s writing style and long sentences. “Charli XCX captures the weird intimacy of quarantine” by Spencer Kornhaber and “Reggie Bush says paying college athletes will ‘destroy some people’” were both written in a straightforward manner, but have higher scores because of their long sentences. These articles could easily have had scores of 8 if a few of the sentences were broken up or rewritten.

Why the Super Bowl Article Is an Excellent Example of Readability

Many excellent articles in this list have scores of 8 or 9, or the average reading level in the U.S. The write-up of the 2019 Super Bowl, “Mahomes leads Chiefs’ rally past 49ers in Super Bowl, 31-20” is an excellent example of an article written in a style that is easy to read, easy to comprehend, and well written. The best article that has a score of about 8 is “New-Style Business Leaders Will Emerge after the Pandemic” by Marie Gould Harper. This article is written in a style that is engaging, readable and interesting while communicating everything that is needed without using too many technical terms or concepts. The final article that has a score around 8 is “Bill T. Jones knows life will change, and his art too” by Gia Kourlas at The New York Times. This is an excellent example of a long, well-written article that is easy to understand and contains lots of quotes. The readability of this article is also appreciated because cultural and artistic articles are often written in a complex style that can turn people off. But this one about the great Bill T. Jones is accessible to everyone.

Applying Flesch-Kincaid to Your Writing

Now that we know about readability scores, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test, the reading and literacy skills of Americans, and examples of articles and their Flesch-Kincaid grade level scores, what do we do now? Here are some tips to make your writing readable when writing for the typical audience:
  • Write in a straightforward, active style.
  • Have an interesting, attention-grabbing first paragraph.
  • Do not use too many multisyllabic words (within reason).
  • Keep your sentences around 16 words in length.
  • Do not have long paragraphs which obscure online reading.
  • Aim for a Flesch-Kincaid grade level test score of 8 or 9.
All of these tips can be ignored when writing for a specific audience with technical knowledge about a subject. However, when you’re writing for the typical online reader, following these tips will point you in a readable direction. Writing articles that can be easily understood, especially by online audiences, takes a lot of work, a lot of thought and a lot of editing. It is always better to write articles that are understandable, enjoyable, and informative, rather than articles that are technical, long-winded, or complex.

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.

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 M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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