Wondering what readability means and what a readability score is useful for? You're looking in the right place! Read on for a potted history, along with a few examples of how to use it.

Let's start with the obvious question:

What is readability?

Readability is a measure of how easy a piece of text is to read. It can include elements of complexity, familiarity, legibility and typography. Readability formulas usually look at factors like sentence length, syllable density and word familiarity as part of their calculations.

Why does readability matter?

The written word is used to communicate a whole host of ideas and information. But, what if without even being aware of it, your writing was stopping people engaging with your content?

Readability scores measure whether content is likely to be understood by your intended reader.

What is a readability score?

A readability score can tell you what level of education someone will need to be able to read a piece of text easily. The score identifies a grade level approximate to the number of years of education a person has had.

For example, a Flesch-Kincaid readability score of around 8 is roughly equivalent to a reading level of US grade 8 - ages 13-14.

When text is too difficult or awkward to read, messages may not be engaged with or understood. On the flipside, when writing is too simplistic, your audience might feel patronized or just plain bored. Either way, the readability of a given text influences the extent to which people engage with and take on a message.

Where did readability scoring come from?

The idea of readability came about in the 1920s. As the numbers of children going to secondary school increased, figuring out exactly what children should be taught became a hot topic.

Advice arrived in 1921 in the form of 10,000 words, listed in Edward Thorndike’s The Teachers’ Word.

The list highlighted to teachers the words they should be instilling in a student’s vocabulary. Each word was assigned a value based on Thorndike’s calculation of the breadth and frequency of use.

From this, the catalyst for research into readability was born.

By the late 40s, a number of new readability measures had emerged that generated scores based on syllable counting and sentence length.

For example, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scores are between 0 and 100. With a score of 70 to 80, equivalent to seventh grade - age 12 - is fairly easy to read.

The new scores were often mapped to a grade level, such as with the Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning-Fog Grade Levels. With both formulae, a score of 7-8 is ideal.

Why does readability matter?

Why does readability matter?

Readability is a widely applied principle, valued across a vast spectrum of professions and sectors.

Here are just a few examples of why it matters and to who.

1 | Teachers. How do they decide what texts are appropriate for their students?

Education is the foundation of society. This places a huge responsibility on teachers to educate effectively.

One of the many factors that bear on the success of teaching is whether an instruction is appropriate for level for the learner.

Too easy and they’ll be bored. Too difficult and you risk disengaging them altogether.

Readability scores help educators choose the correct level of books.

Back in 1975, the UK education policy A language for life set out that:

“A particularly important teaching skill is that of assessing the difficulty level of books by applying measures of readability. The teacher who can do this is in a better position to match children to reading materials that answer their needs.”

It’s now over forty years later and the use of readability scores in the choosing of set texts remains influential.

A survey by the US National Council of Teachers of English found that 84% of respondents identified readability level as a factor that influenced the books they chose.

While some have highlighted its limitations, readability provides an essential measure by which to choose appropriate text.

Engage with your audience

2 | Digital marketers. Increase the likelihood of people engaging with your brand

As Neil Patel mentioned in his Content Marketing Institute blog, "content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing".

This isn’t quite true, badly executed ideas can also be easily read. However, readability plays a vital role in getting people to your website and ensuring they engage with your content when they get there.

This makes readability a pretty important factor for success in digital marketing. Unfortunately, the readability of web content varies massively between sites.

A study of wine websites looked at the copy from the 20 most popular wine brands in the US. The results didn’t read well, but they did produce a consensus on two areas.

  1. Everybody loves wine - no surprise there!
  2. Content that was readable converted better across demographics.

Less sophisticated consumers wouldn’t engage in unclear messages about wine. At the same time, more sophisticated consumers appreciated information being conveyed clearly.

3 | Lawyers. It's time to simplify legal documents

“Have you read the terms and conditions?” “Yes,” we say, even though

99% of the time this is a lie.

That said, if those terms and conditions were a matter of life and death we’d at least take a glance.

The difficulty here is that important legal documents, such as wills, are often written in a way that people can’t understand.

A recent study by the University of Colorado Springs investigated how people comprehend legal language in wills.

It revealed that people have significant difficulty understanding key legal concepts.

Increasing readability improved a lawyers ability to apply legal concepts and for them to be understood.

Supplying explanations in plain English for difficult to understand legalese was found to be effective, as well as ethical.

Given that most older adults have a will, the idea that its contents may not have been fully understood is worrying.

Policies that are readable

4 | Government. Transparent policies

It’s the responsibility, and moral duty, of any government to clearly communicate their ideas and plans. However, as you soon realize when reading government policy, this isn't often the case.

To counter, there are campaigns in the UK and the US that aim to help governments. Promotion of plain English and readable content is their core message.

But what are the criteria by which we can judge whether something is written clearly and concisely? You guessed it, readability scores.

In the US, following the introduction of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, the efforts of government bodies to present their policies clearly is audited annually by the center for plain English - PLAIN.

PLAIN produces a reaport with the readability scores for each government department. Those with poor communication are held accountable.

In Holland, the Dutch government made great use of the CEFR readability score. After producing a tonne of information the general public couldn’t understand and wasting taxpayers money, they adopted readability.

Sometimes, you need to learn the hard way...

5 | Healthcare. How to ensure patients are getting the right messages around their care and treatment

What is lupus? How long does flu last? Is bronchitis contagious?

Whatever the condition or sickness your suffering from, Google has an answer. Although, the information available is often numerous, scary, and very quiestionable.

As the average American reads at an eighth-grade level, medical material should be written at a fourth to sixth-grade level. As recommended by the US National Library of Medicine.

However, one report - A comparative analysis of the quality of patient education materials from medical specialties - showed that content from all of the 16 tested medical specialties was too complex for the average reader.

This led to possible issues in diverse areas, such as plastic surgery, family medicine and neurology.

When my toddler fell down the stairs, my wife and I went into full-on protective parent mode. First, we checked on him and gave him a cuddle. Thankfully, it wasn’t a bad fall, but it did scare us.

The next thing we did was head to Google for advice on what to do next. We needed to know what danger signs to look for and if we should take him to hospital or not.

I’d hate to have been reading advice that was too difficult to understand quickly. Especially when panic, stress and a crying toddler is added to the mix.

How can readability scoring help you?

Readability scores don't just point out problems, they provide a tool by which to address them. They help writers ensure content, in all it's glorious uses, can be clearly understood.

Readability scoring provides a gauge by which writers can improve the quality of their writing. But, it's not always easy to understand results. Which is why we created Readable and developed a one size fit all readability rating.

Our website checker ReadablePro, will help you:

  1. Enhance the readability levels of a website, individual pages and their key content
  2. Improve SEO performance
  3. Increase visitor engagement
  4. Optimize your conversion rates

Do you use readability scoring in your work? How does it help you? We'd love to know what you use readability scoring for.

Sources: educationengland.org.uk, ncte.org, contentmarketinginstitute.com, emeraldinsight.com, uccs.edu, centerforplainlanguage.org, news.health.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, medlineplus.gov, joshd.net

Ruth Colmer

Ruth is a freelance writer, researcher, and lecturer. She likes reading, cooking, writing stories, travel, and human beings.