- What is readability? Readability is what makes some texts easier to read than others. It is often confused with legibility, which concerns typeface and layout. George Klare (1963) defines readability as “the ease of understanding or comprehension due to the style of writing.” This definition focuses on writing style as separate from issues such as content, coherence, and organization. In a similar manner, Gretchen Hargis and her colleagues at IBM (1998) state that readability, the “ease of reading words and sentences,” is an attribute of clarity.
- The creator of the SMOG readability formula G. Harry McLaughlin (1969) defines readability as: “the degree to which a given class of people find certain reading matter compelling and comprehensible.” This definition stresses the interaction between the text and a class of readers of known characteristics such as reading skill, prior knowledge, and motivation.
- Edgar Dale and Jeanne Chall’s (1949) definition may be the most comprehensive: “The sum total (including all the interactions) of all those elements within a given piece of printed material that affect the success a group of readers have with it. The success is the extent to which they understand it, read it at an optimal speed, and find it interesting.” (p.3)
- The Adult Literacy Studies: These studies discovered great differences in the reading skills of adults in the U.S. and their implications for society.
- The Classic Readability Studies: This section looks at the early readability studies, which started in the late 19th century and concluded in the 1940s, with the publication of the popular Flesch and Dale-Chall formulas. During this period, publishers, educators, and teachers were concerned with finding practical methods to match texts to the skills of readers, both students and adults.
- The New Readability Studies: Beginning in the 1950s, new developments transformed the study of readability, including a new test of reading comprehension and the contributions of linguistics and cognitive psychology. Researchers explored how the reader’s interest, motivation, and prior knowledge affect readability. These studies in turn stimulated the creation of new and more accurate formulas. (p-3)
- Measures of literacy correlate closely with measures of intelligence and aptitude.
- Measures of literacy correlate closely with the breadth of one’s knowledge.
- Measures of literacy correlate closely to job performance. Hundreds of military studies found no gap between literacy and job performance.
- Workplace literacy programs are highly effective in producing, in a brief period, significant improvements in job-related reading.
- Advanced readers have vast bodies of knowledge and perform well across a large set of domains of knowledge. Poor readers perform poorly across these domains of knowledge. This means that, if programs of adult literacy are to move students to high levels of literacy, they must help them explore and learn across a wide range of knowledge (Sticht and Armstrong 1994, pp. 37-38). (4-5)
- U.S. civilian literacy surveys University of Chicago Study Guy Buswell (1937) of the University of Chicago surveyed 1,000 adults in Chicago with different levels of education. He measured skills in reading materials such as food ads, telephone directories, and movie ads. He also used more traditional tests of comprehension of paragraphsand vocabulary. Buswell found that reading skills and practices increase as years of education increase. He suggested that an important role of education is to guide readers to read more, and that reading more leads to greater reading skill. In turn, this may lead one to continue more education, thus leading to greater reading skill. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of 1970-1971. This study tested how students 9, 13, and 17 years old as well adults 26 to 35 years old perform on 21 different tasks. The results showed for the first time how age affects performance on the same items. This survey showed as children grow up, attend school, and become adults, they grow progressively more literate (Sticht and Armstrong, pp. 51-58).
- Louis Harris survey of 1970: The Louis Harris polling organization surveyed adults representing a cross section of the U.S. population. The subjects filled out five common application forms, including an application for a driver’s license and a Medicaid application. The poll was the first of many to show that many U.S. citizens have difficulty with filling out forms. The Medicaid form was difficult, with only 54 percent of those with an 8th grade education or less getting 90-100 percent correct. Even many college-educated adults had trouble completing the Medicaid form (Sticht and Armstrong, pp. 59-62)
- Adult Functional Reading Study of 1973: This study used household interviews to find out the literacy practices of adults. It used a second household sample to assess literacy skills. Over all 170 items used in the study, over 70 percent of the respondents scored 70 percent correct or better. As a trend, adults with more education performed better on the test than those with less. As with Buswell’s study, both literacy skills and literacy practices correlated closely with education. Book and magazine reading correlated more closely with years of education than did newspaper reading. Altogether, the adults reported that they spent about 90 minutes a day in reading materials such as forms, labels, signs, bills, and mail. (Sticht and Armstrong, pp. 63-66).
- Adult Performance Level Study of 1971: This study began as a project funded by the U. S. Office of Education. It introduced “competency-based” education, directing adult education to focus on achieving measurable outcomes. By 1977, two-thirds of the states had set up some form of “competency-based” adult basic education. The test included over 40 common and practical tasks, such as filling out a check, reading the want ads, addressing an envelope, comparing advertised products, filling out items on a 1040 tax form, reading a tax table, and filling out a Social Security application. Results showed the high correlation between performance on all tasks and literacy (Sticht and Armstrong, pp. 67-98).
- Prose literacy—meaning of selected texts
- Document literacy—finding information on a form such as a bus schedule.
- Quantitive literacy—mathematical and spatial tasks: Both studies used a literacy scoring range of 1 to 500 and the five levels of skill defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (1985). John Carroll (1987) estimated the corresponding reading-grade levels as shown in Table 1. (p.6-7)
- The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) of 1992: This U.S. Government study sampled 26,000 adults, representing 191 million adults. In 1993, it published the first of a number of reports on this survey entitled, “Adult Literacy in America” (National Center for Education Statistics 1993, 1999, 2001). This study used the same tests as the Young Adult Literacy Survey and reported data with the same five levels of skill. The data in this table suggest 40 to 44 million adults in the U.S. are in Level 1, defined as “functionally illiterate, not having enough reading skills for daily life.” Some 50 million are in Level 2. This means the percentage of adults who struggle at Levels 1 and 2 (below the 5th -grade level) in the U.S. reaches 48 percent. The report confirmed that numeracy (quantitative) skills increase with reading skills. Adults of different reading skills not only have different worldviews but also different life experiences. Forty-three percent of adults with low-literacy skills live in poverty, 17% receive food stamps, and 70% have no job or part- time job. Over 60 % of frontline workers producing goods have difficulty applying information from a text to a task. More than 20% of adults read below the sixth-grade level, far below the level needed to earn a living wage. (p.8)
Challenges for technical communicators: The lessons of the literacy studies for technical communicators are obvious:
- Low and intermediate literacy skills are a big problem for large numbers of users of technical documents. Providing technical documents at their levels will advance both their technical and reading skills.
- The larger the audience, the more it will include the average reading habits and skills of the public as determined by the literacy surveys.
- The more critical the information is for safety and health, the greater is the need for increased readability. The finding that the great majority of adult readers are mid-range, intermediate readers brings to us in technical communication new opportunities and challenges.
- Intermediate readers represent a large audience that technical documents have been missing. Go into any library or bookstore, and you will find few technical or scientific publications in the “Young Adult” section, or elsewhere written at the 7th to 9th-grade level. On the Internet, there is the same scarcity of
- intermediate technical materials.
- For example, a small sampling of the author’s shows that the support sections of the Apple and Microsoft Web sites are written at advanced level of 10th grade and up. The technical books for Dummies and Idiots, while written in a casual style, are often at the 10th -grade level and up. Like the car-safety seat instructions, these technical documents are too difficult for 80 percent of adult readers in the U.S. Ironically, the user manual that comes with the CorelDraw program is written at the 7th-grade level, making it fit for a much larger audience than its Dummies counterpart.
- Considering the keen interest that intermediate readers of all ages can have in technical matters, this literacy gap is troubling. While some highly motivated readers are able to master difficult technical materials, we cannot assume that everyone will do so. To the contrary, the difficulty of technical materials has taught many if not most readers of intermediate skill not to look for technical help in written texts. Helpful text means not only providing readers accurate information but also information written at the reading levels they need.
- Number of different technical words.
- Number of different hard non-technical words.
- Number of indeterminate clauses.
Their criterion included 48 selections of about 100 words each, half of them fiction, taken from the books, magazines, and newspapers most widely read by adults. They established the difficulty of these selections by a reading-comprehension test given to about 800 adults designed to test their ability to get
the main idea of the passage.
4. Features of Organization
- A community of scholars. The periodical summaries of the progress of readability research (Klare 1952, 1963, 1974-75, 1984, Chall 1958, and Chall and Dale 1995) revealed a community of scholars. They were interested in how and why the formulas work, how to improve them, and what they tell us not only about reading, but also about writing.
- The cloze test. The introduction of the cloze test by Wilson Taylor in 1953 opened the way for investigators to test the properties of texts and readers with more accuracy and detail.
- Reading ability, prior knowledge, interest, and motivation. A number of studies looked at the manner in which these reader variables affect readability.
- Reading efficiency. While other studies looked at the effects of readability on comprehension, these studies looked at the effects on reading speed and persistence.
- The measurement of content. The influence of cognitive psychology and linguistics in the 1980s stimulated renewed studies of cognitive and structural factors in the text and how they can be used to predict readability.
- Text leveling. Cognitive and linguistic theory revived interest in the qualitative and subjective assessment of readability. With training, leveling can be effective in assessing the elements of texts not addressed by the formulas.
- Producing and transforming text. Several studies examined the effectiveness of using the formula variables to write and revise texts. When writers attend to content, organization, and coherence, using the readability variables can be effective in producing and transforming a text to a required reading level.
- New readability formulas. Extensive studies of readability by John Bormuth and others looked at the reliability of a wide range of measurable text variables. They produced an empirical basis for criterion scores and criterion texts for the development of new formulas and reworking of old ones.
- Formula discrepancy A look a the discrepancy between the results of different formulas and how writers can benefit from it.(p.25)
Donald Murphy (1947), the editor of Wallace’s Farmer, used a split run with an article written at the 9th-grade level on one run and on at the 6th-grade level on the other run. He found that increasing readability increased readership up of the article 18 percent. In a second test, he took great care not to change anything except readability, keeping headlines, illustrations, subject matter and the position the same. He found readership increases of 45% for an article on nylon and 60% for an article on corn.
-8th grade). They measured reading efficiency with an eye-movement camera with which they could determine the number of words read per second and the number of words read per fixation. A strong “set-to-learn” was stimulated by allowing the subjects to re-read the text and giving them a pre-test before the experimental test.
chaining). (p.30)Readability and course completion. Publishers of correspondence courses are understandably concerned when large numbers of students do not complete the courses. They often suspect the materials are too difficult for the students. Working with Kim Smart of the U. S. Armed Forces Institute, Klare (1973)
applied the Flesch Reading Ease formula to thirty sets of printed correspondence courses used by the military.
- Image words, abstraction, predication, direct and indirect discourse, types of narration, and types of sentences, phrases, and clauses (Gray and Leary 1935).
- Difficult concepts (Morriss and Holverson 1938, Chall 1958).
- Idea density (Dolch 1939).
- Human interest (Flesch 1949, Gunning 1952)
- Organization (Gunning 1952, Klare and Buck 1954, Chall 1958).
- Nominalization (Coleman and Blumenfeld 1963; Coleman, 1964)
- Active and passive voice (Gough 1965, Coleman 1966, Clark and Haviland 1977, Hornby 1974).
- Embeddedness (Coleman 1966). (p.31)
Among Meyer’s observations are the following:
- A visible plan for presenting content plays a key role in assessing the difficulty of a text.
- A plan incorporates a hierarchy showing the dependencies of the facts to one another:
- The antecedent/consequent plan shows causal relationships in “if/then” logic.
- The comparison plan presents two opposing views that give weight to both sides.
- The adversative plan clearly favors one side over the other (political speeches).
- The response plan gives answers to remarks, questions, and problems (science articles).
- The time-order plan relates events chronologically (history texts). Better readers tend to share the same plan as authors of the material they are reading. Readers who use a different plan other than the authors may be at a disadvantage.
- Subordination: used to connect the main idea with supporting text as in a hierarchical structure.
- Signaling: explicit markers to clarify relationships such as:
- “On the one hand…On the other hand…”
- “Three things have to be stressed here.”
- “Thus,” “consequently,” and “therefore”
- “Nevertheless,” “all the same,” “although,” “but,” and “however”
- Signaling can also clarify how larger blocks of content are related, for example:
- “For example,” “For further details,” “summary,” “abstract,” “conclusion,” and “preview.” For more on signaling, see the studies by Jan Spyridakis (1989, 1989a).
Besides reducing the difficulty of the text, Meyer wrote that strategy training can also help older adults deal with the difficulties they encounter in reading.
- Global coherence, which integrates high-level ideas across an entire section, chapter, or book.
- Local coherence, which uses connectives to link ideas within and between sentences. (p.33)
Armbruster found that recalling stories from memory is superior when the structure of the story is clear. She also noted the close relationship between global content and organization. Content is an aspect of structure, and organization is the supreme source of comprehension difficulty.
For local coherence, Armbruster stressed the highlighting that carries meanings from one phrase, clause, or sentence to another:
- Pronoun references to previous nouns
- Substitutions or replacements for a previously used phrase or clause
- (sometimes called “resumptive modifiers”), for example: “These results [previously listed] suggest that…”
- Finally, Armbruster supported Kintsch’s finding that coherence and structure are
more important for younger readers than older ones, simply because they have
less language and experience. (p.33)
Calfee, Curley, and the familiar outline R.C. Calfee and R. Curleyv(1984) built on the work of Bonnie Meyer. They stressed making the structure of the text clear to upper-grade readers. The content can be simple, but an unfamiliar underlying structure can make the text unnecessarily difficult.
They proposed that the teacher, researcher, and student all need to reach a mutual understanding of the type of outline being used for the text under discussion.
1. Narrative—fictional and factual
2. Concrete process—descriptive and prescriptive
3. Description—fictional, factual particular, and factual general
4. Concrete topical exposition
5. Line of reasoning—rational, narrative, physical and relational cause-
6. Argument—dialogue, theories and support, reflective essay
7. Abstract exposition
- The lessons of content, organization, and coherence: Organization and coherence highlight the relationships between words, sentences, paragraphs, and larger sections of text. They enable readers to fit new items of information into their own cognitive systems of organization.
reveal or create, such as:
- Unfamiliar life experiences and background
- The need for time to digest illustrations and new material
- The need for multiple treatments of difficult material
- The need for learning aids to overcome textual difficulty
1. Proportion of content (functional) words.
2. Frequency, familiarity, and length of content words.
3. Concreteness or abstractness.
4. Association value.
5. Active vs. nominalized verb constructions.
1. Length (esp. clause length).
2. Active vs. passive.
3. Affirmative vs. negative.
4. Embedded vs. non-embedded.
5. Low depth vs. high depth (branches).
refer to this study, it deserves some attention.
- Dumas and Redish (1999), in their work on usability testing, hardly mention reading comprehension. They have us assume that, if test subjects correctly perform a task, they have correctly understood the instructions. When problems arise, however, it is difficult to locate the source of the difficulty.
- In both usability testing and reading protocols, some subjects are more skilled than others in articulating the problems they encounter. Do problems come from the text or from some other source? If they are located in the text, do they come from the design, style, organization, coherence, or content? We are often left with guesswork and trial-and-error cycles of revision and testing. As experienced writers know, this gets expensive. In preparation for a test, it makes as little sense to neglect the readability of a document as it does to neglect its punctuation, grammar, coherence, or organization. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of testing and of frequent contacts with members of the targeted audience before, during, and after the process of producing documents as urged by Schriver (1997) and Hackos and Redish (1998). Assessing both the reading ability of the audience and the readability of the text will greatly facilitate this process (55)