Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Understanding Reading Levels, Part 1

To be honest, reading levels are something of a mystery. For example, there are several different scales that are used to determine reading level, and no real agreement on which one is best.

Let's start with a common one that you may have and not even know it.

Microsoft Word has a "Spelling & Grammar" checker (I use Word 2007, and it's located on the "Review" tab) and it gives you two slightly different "Readability" numbers:
  • the Flesch Reading Ease (I'll just call it the FRE) score, which is a number between 0.0 and 100.0, and
  • the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FK), which Wikipedia says "translates the 0–100 score to a U.S. grade level, making it easier for teachers, parents, librarians, and others to judge the readability level of various books and texts. It can also mean the number of years of education generally required to understand this text, relevant when the formula results in a number greater than 10."
The two give inverse numbers -- that is, if the first number is high, the second should be low. As an example, The Krilt's Secret Weapon tests out at in Word with a FRE of 98.8 and an FK of 1.0, respectively.

If you go to, you can get the results from several different tests that all give a grade level:
  • the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level listed above,
  • the Gunning-Fog Score,
  • the Coleman-Liau Index,
  • the SMOG Index (I love that name!),
  • the Automated Readability Index, and
  • an average of them all.
These tests can differ by several grade levels for the same text. For example, I pasted the first two chapters of The Krilt's Secret Weapon and got the following grade levels:
  • the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 0.9
  • the Gunning-Fog Score: 2.8
  • the Coleman-Liau Index: 6.9
  • the SMOG Index: 2.4
  • the Automated Readability Index: 0
  • the average: 2.6
Note the range: A low of 0 and a high of 6.9. That's almost 7 grade levels' difference in the ratings! And personally, I don't buy into a couple of them. That Gunning-Fog Score? There's no way that Captain Nexus is 7th-grade reading level! But that Automated Readability index can't be right either. What does a 0 mean -- it's suitable for preschoolers? I don't think so.

While I'm writing, I rely on the 2 Flesch levels most because they're built into Word and very easy to use. If I can get the Flesch levels around 98-99 and 1.0, I know I'll have something in the correct ballpark.

But ultimately I think reading level is a matter of opinion. Therefore you should get a good opinion! That's why I have a librarian look over my books after I have something I'm pretty happy with. They use somewhat different criteria for determining reading levels.

Learning how to change what you write in order to manipulate the grade levels can be tricky. There are a few basic concepts that can help you get the reading level to move in the right general direction, though. I'll look at those in my next post.

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