Measuring Readability

By Nirmaldasan

— This article appeared in the July-September 2011 issue of Vidura, a quarterly journal of the Press Institute of India: http://pressinstitute.in/archvd2011/jul-sep-vidura-11.pdf

Linguistic skill is a necessary condition for the creation of readable texts. Helen Keller’s The Story Of My Life, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Tales Of Unease are but three examples that display felicity of language. Like these literary classics, there are a number of non-literary and yet very readable texts such as magazine features, news reports and product manuals.

However, a well-written text may not be readable for all people. William DuBay’s definition of readability as ‘the ease of reading created by a literary style that fits the reading level of the audience’ underscores the need for matching text with the appropriate audience. A scoring system of 1 to 17+ consisting of the years of schooling is perhaps the most effective, though not perfect, way of grading texts. Suppose we walk into a Standard VII classroom and administer a reading test, the results may show that not all students read at level 7. Some students may be below average with a reading level of 5 or even lower; and some may be above average with a reading level of 9 or even higher.

Research has shown that the average reader in theU.S.and theU.K.has eight years of schooling. Since newspapers and magazines are usually meant for a general audience, it is ideal if the reports and features are tailored for readers with eight years of schooling. As this may not be possible given the type of serious content, writers should at least aim for a score of 10 or less.

Though there are a number of factors that make a story readable, most readability formulae depend on two variables: vocabulary and sentence length. Robert Gunning’s Fog Index may be calculated in a few easy steps:

  1. Average words per sentence (AWS)
  2. Percentage of polysyllables (P), excluding capitalized words, easy compound words and disyllabic verbs made trisyllabic by adding ‘-es’ or ‘-ed’.
  3. FI = 0.4 x (AWS + P)

Here is an example from Gunning: “Typing errors are easy to make in transposing code numbers of appropriations. We suggest each Division Planning Office set up a file of yellow tickets showing all authorized unit and item numbers. Then each can make a daily check of construction charges before sending time distribution sheets to the Accounting Department.” Three sentences, 51 words and 5 polysyllables. Therefore, AWS = 51/3 = 17; P = (5/51) x 100 = 9.8; and Fog Index = 0.4 x (17 + 9.8) = 10 years of schooling.

One must remember that a formula is a shortcut to assess the readability of a text. It should be applied on only well-written texts. If the text is poorly crafted, it must be revised or rewritten according to the time-tested principles of effective writing. Then the text may be tested with the Fog Index.

Here are some tips for clear writing:

  1. Keep the sentence length under 30 syllables
  2. Prefer the active voice
  3. Use a conversational style
  4. Limit the number of clauses
  5. Avoid sentence fragments
  6. Use words that are in everyday use
  7. Omit needless words
  8. Write with nouns and verbs
  9. Use adjectives of kind, not of degree
  10. Avoid too many negatives

 Suggested Reading

Plain Language In Plain English: Ed. Cheryl Stephens, Plain Language Wizardry, Vancouver, 2010.

Oxford Guide To Plain English: Martin Cutts,OxfordUniversity Press, New York, 3rd edition, 2009.

The Gettysburg Approach To Writing & Speaking Like a Professional: Philip A. Yaffe, INDI Publishing Group,Phoenix(Arizona), 2009.

Smart Language (Readers, Readability, and the Grading of Text): William DuBay, Impact Information, Costa Mesa (California), 2007.

Unlocking Language (The Classic Readability Studies): William Dubay, Impact Information, Costa Mesa(California), 2007.

Good Style(Writing For Science And Technology): John Kirkman, Spon Press, London, 2nd Indian reprint, 2007.

Indlish (The Book for Every English-Speaking Indian): Jyoti Sanyal, Viva Books, New Delhi, reprint, 2007.

Assessing Reading: J. Charles Alderson,Cambridge University Press, New York, 5th printing, 2005.

The Elements Of Style: William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Longman Publishers, New York, 4th edition, 2000.

How To Take The Fog Out Of Writing: Robert Gunning, Taraporevala Publishing Industries, Bombay, 1st Indian reprint, 1979.

The Complete Plain Words: Sir Ernest Gowers, The English Language Book Society and Penguin Books, reprint, 1969.

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