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Readability: Does your reader understand your writing?

Ever wondered why people misunderstand your Facebook posts? Perhaps your text messages or tweets get confused as well. Everything that is written can be tested for readability. This is not to be confused with Readability in the field of typography. Maybe you write content for the web and you want to make sure that your readers can understand what you have written. We all know the importance of a crystal clear message communicated through writing. Here is how you can determine if you are you writing for high school students or doctors.

Usually people with at least some college experience are writing content for website’s these days. Unfortunately, this means that not everyone will understand your website’s textual content. What if your target audience are in their teen years. Wouldn’t like to know if your audience who comes to your site can understand your choice of words? A web developer is sometimes responsible for web content creation depending on the project’s budget.

This article includes resources and information that will help you develop content that is appropriate for your target audience’s, education level, age level, and average reading comprehension level. There are about five systems that have been created over the last sixty years by people who study these types of science. Below will a brief introduction of what they are and how you can use them while developing your writing for whatever medium you choose.

Firstly, the [Flesch-Kincaid] Reading Grade level assessment will score your content from zero to one-hundred. The lower the score number the higher the average grade level will have to be to understand your writing. The Flesch-Kincaid test uses a sophisticated formula based on a calculation of total words, total sentences, and syllables in each word. So, if your writing a website for a teen pregnancy website such as [] you would not want this particular score to be lower than about 60. This means, unless the 16 year old has a college degree there will be little to know chance they will be able to understand your website’s content. Obviously, one can see the malady caused here.

 Readability Formula Of The Previous Paragraph 

  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level   8.7
  • Gunning-Fog Score   10.9
  • Coleman-Liau Index   11.9
  • SMOG Index   7.7
  • Automated Readability Index   9.4

Average Grade Level   9.7

The next test is the Gunning-Fog index. Instead of using a complex formula based loosely on the ratio of syllables to words, this one focuses more or the word numbers in each sentence. It also weighs in the number of complex words to the algorithm. This test was designed to guess-timate the number of years of formal education one might need to understand the english in the piece of writing. For the widest audience it is recommended that your score be less than a score of twelve. For an all around universal understanding of the writing a score of eight or less is suggested.

Readability Formula Of The Previous Paragraph 

  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.3
  • Gunning-Fog Score 11.2
  • Coleman-Liau Index 10.1
  • SMOG Index 8
  • Automated Readability Index 8.2

Average Grade Level 9.2

This next score takes an interesting new spin from the aforementioned scoring systems. It is called the Coleman-Liau index. This test would be amazing if you wanted to compose “The Perfect Tweet” because its score is based on the total number of letters or characters within a sentence. This result is loosely based on the minimum grade level needed to understand the sentences. For example, if your score is a ten, it would be hoped that at least a tenth grader could read and understand the text. A score of 16 or higher may require a graduate level college student to understand the content and its meaning.

This next index has received it’ acronym by a scientist; Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook. I wonder if that scientist had read Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky. I digress. So this readability test is most useful in the field of message creation in the health field. Like a public service health announcement about a particular food being recalled or an Ebola virus breakout. This test has much in common with the Flesch-Kincaid test because it relies on the relationship between words and their contained syllables. Unfortunately, results will be invalidated with any piece of writing with fewer than thirty sentences. A score of 13 -16 indicate the need for some college. A score of nineteen or above denotes that only expert such as an Md or Phd in that field should be consuming that written content.

Readability Formula Grade For Previous Paragraph

  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.6
  • Gunning-Fog Score 9.2
  • Coleman-Liau Index 12.5
  • SMOG Index 7.4
  • Automated Readability Index 8.7

Average Grade Level 9.3

The last readability test that will be examined is the Automated Readablity Index (ARI). The information found for this article has come mostly from research gathered by the armed services such as US Air Force, Navy, and Army. This correlation is out of the scope of this article, but was worth mentioning. This test was originally created for use on a modified electric typewriter around 1970 and was developed by Smith and Senter (George R. Klare). This test was translated for other languages as well as US English. The results of this test will indicate the suggested minimum grade for satisfactory comprehension.

I wonder how askew this test would be if they used poetry, such as one of my favorite poems written by Lewis Carrol: Jabberwocky. Let’s see shall we.

Grade for Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky  

Average Grade Level 4.8

This result is humorous at best and these tests will be invalidated if used with poetry. I would be willing to say that neither a fourth grader nor a doctor would have any clue as to what the author was trying to convey other than his wit and technical ability to control the measure, timing, and rhyme scheme of this poem. It is vague at best to even experts in the field. This score should have been a 16 or better, but it only scored a 4.8 .

There are countless other readability tests available for anyone to use. From this article, we can safely determine a few things;

  • Keep your words short, longer is not better for web content
  • Keep your sentences short, avoid run ons and restate your subject as much as possible
  • Keep your audience wide by not complicating or trying to get fancy with your writing. (this is my worst offender)
  • Know your audience, don’t write content they cannot grasp because of their education level

This list, by no means, is intended to be a complete comprehensive list of all the methods to test your content. There are many others; the Dale-Chall formula, the Ride Scale, the Mugford Readability Chart to mention a few. The tests listed here are only based on U.S. english and will not work for any other versions of English or any other language.

Here are some links for free online website readability testing. I can not personally vouch for the accuracy of this external link, but they seem legit.
Gunning-Fog Score
Coleman-Liau Index
SMOG Index
Automated Readability Index

Sources Cited

George R. Klare
Reading Research Quarterly , Vol. 10, No. 1 (1974 – 1975) , pp. 62-102
Published by: International Reading Association
Article Stable URL:

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