How To Grade Words?

By Nirmaldasan

(nirmaldasan@hotmail.com)

Edgar Dale and Joseph O’Rourke in ‘Living Word Vocabulary’ (LWV) graded thousands of words using what I would like to call the Graded Survey Method. According to this method, the grade of a word is the lowest grade in which at least 67% of the students found it familiar. In the ‘Plain English Lexicon’ Martin Cutts writes about the LWV: “It covered some 44,000 word meanings and involved 320,000 students. For each word, roughly 200 students were tested using a 3-choice multiple-choice test.”

The work is useful and impressive. But I was intimidated by the amount of labour involved. “There must be a shortcut,” I thought, and found one too.

The grading of words involves two simple steps: 1. Identifying the given word as familiar or unfamiliar; and 2. Counting syllables of a familiar word or counting letters of an unfamiliar word.

The first step can be easily accomplished by using any one of the following methods:

  • Group Method: Present the word to a group of five persons. The word is considered familiar if four out of five think so. This method may also be called the 80% method.
  • Martin Cutts Method: Look at the frequency of the word in the British National Corpus. “To give a very rough guide, I judge that words scoring more than about 1,200 are fairly common,” says Martin Cutts in the ‘Plain English Lexicon’. If the word does not occur in the corpus or if its frequency is less than 1200, then the word is considered unfamiliar.
  • List Method: A word is considered familiar if it occurs in any list of familiar words. We may use Edgar Dale’s List of 3000 familiar words or Kev Nair’s List of Maximum General Utility Words (2788).
  • Media Method: A word is considered familiar if it is frequently heard on radio and television or frequently found in newspapers and magazines.
  • Subjective Method:  If the word is familiar to me, then it is assumed that the word is familiar to others too. A better version of this method is that if I think the word is familiar to all, then it must be so.

The second step takes no time and little effort. Here we go!

  • The Grade Level of Familiar Word (GLFW) = S (number of syllables of the word)
  • The Grade Level of Unfamiliar Word (GLUW) = L (number of letters of the word)

NOTE: The Grade Level is the number of years of schooling required to understand a text. Usually, the scale is 1 to 17+ years of schooling.

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