100 Things You Should Know About People: #54 — The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8

Picture of a kindle

Kindle

If you are a biologist, then the paragraph below might make sense to you:

“The regulation of the TCA cycle is largely determined by substrate availability and product inhibition. NADH, a product of all of the deydrogenases in the TCA cycle, with the exception of succinate dehydrogenase, inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase, isocitrate dehydrogenase, a-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase, while succinyl-CoA inhibits succinyl-CoA synthetase and citrate syntase.”

But if you are not a biologist, it might take you a long time to understand what that paragraph says. You can technically read the paragraph, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. In order to understand information you need one or both of the following:

You will understand new information more easily if there is already a framework of knowledge to fit it into.

The information needs to be at the appropriate reading level.

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Score – The most common formula for calculating the readability of a particular passage of text is the Flesch-Kincaid method. The method gives you a Reading Ease formula and also a reading grade level score.

The formula to calculate how readable your text is:

Reading Score Formula

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Score Formula

The higher the score the easier the passage is to read. Low scores mean the passage is hard to read.

An online tool for calculating readability – Luckily, you don’t actually have to use the fomula. Some word processing software has the Flesch-Kincaid formula built in. Or you can use this online tool:

http://www.standards-schmandards.com/exhibits/rix/index.php

to calculate the reading level of a particular passage. The calculator gives you a Reading Ease Score as well as a Grade Level Score.

I decided to try out the calculator. First I used a paragraph from the State of Colorado Governor’s website:

Colorado State Governor's Web Site

Colorado State Governor's Web Site

Close Up Of the Colorado Governor's Web Page

Close Up Of the Colorado Governor's Web Page

This web page had  a reading level of Grade 12 and a reading ease score of 40. Americans average a reading level of Grade 8, so 12 is harder than the average American can read. For the reading ease score, higher is better. Comic books are at 90, and legal documents are often 10 and under.

Next I tried out the calculator on the State of Wyoming Governor’s home page:

Wyoming State Governor's Web Page

Wyoming State Governor's Web Page

Close Up Of Wyoming State Governor's Web Page

Close Up Of Wyoming State Governor's Web Page

Not much difference – a Grade level of 11 and a Reading Ease score of 42.

Feeling quite smug, I decided I would run one of my blog posts through the calculator:

Readability score for one of my blog posts

Readability Score For One Of My Blog Posts

Uh oh! Reading Grade level of 15 and Reading Ease score of 55?! The Reading Ease is not too bad, but Grade level 15 is a bit high. Well, I knew my readers were smart!

What do you think? Do you ever test the readability level of what you write online?

For those of you who like to read the research:

Stedman, L. and Kaestle, C. (1991) Literacy and reading performance in the United States from 1880 to present. In Kaestle, C. (ed.) Literacy in the United States: Readers and Readings Since 1880. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 75–128.

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11 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #54 — The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8
  1. Leigh says:

    Jakob Nielsen has a great article on Low-Literacy Users and even suggest that general audience sites try for a 6th grade level on the homepage.

  2. Régis Kuckaertz says:

    As usual I think it all depends of who you’re writing for. Some people want that elaborate language because it speeds up their reading — imagine if they had to read expanded abbreviations or side notes each time a scientific word was used.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to write with a few rules of thumb in mind, such as keeping sentences short, avoiding passive voice, etc.

    An interesting story was published two years ago on this very subject: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/opinion/20cogan.html

  3. HL says:

    I think there might be an error in your post about the reading ease score. Isn’t a higher score better than a lower score (higher means an easier text). So your blog post is better than the “About the governor” pages in that respect :p

  4. Susan Weinschenk says:

    HL — good point you made… i shouldn’t be dismayed by the score of 55, but grade level of 15?! That seems a bit high.

    Regis and Leigh — I’ll have to check out the articles you have mentioned. Thanks!

  5. TIM says:

    Great information I plan to share with our clients .. so many don’t take education level and the ease of reading their content into consideration.

  6. Dey Alexander says:

    Susan, thanks for the link to the research. If only readability scores were as helpful as they seem. Ginny Redish has written a couple of excellent articles on the problems with readability scores. See:

    Redish, (2000) ‘Readability formulas have even more limitations than Klare discusses’, ACM Journal of Computer Documentation, Vol 24, No. 3.

    Redish and Selzer, (1985) ‘The place of readability formulas in technical communication’, Technical Communication, Fourth Quarter

    (You’ll find the latter if you search for it on Google, but the link was a nightmare to try to paste in here).

  7. Don says:

    I recommend against using the word “average”. Many internet users are well aware that the word “average” is almost always indicative of manipulation, if not outright lie. Without the data on what kind of “average” is being used (mean, mode, etc.) and how it was derived, no “average” can ever be accepted by a rational person as factual information. I understand you’re probably writing for a less intellectual audience, but then would such an audience really go to an obviously intellectual website like this? Plus there’s something to be said for lifting people up, rather than making it more comfortable for them to stay down.

  8. Gigi says:

    Hooray! 5th grade and 68!

  9. Chris from MN says:

    “For the reading ease score, lower is better. Comic books are at 90, and legal documents are often 10 and under”

    Am I missing something? Comic books are not easy to read, but legal documents are?

    Wow… my brain must be broken!

  10. Susan Weinschenk says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for catching that error! I’ve corrected it. A higher reading ease score means it is easier to read.

  11. Jelzmar says:

    You scored a 15? I’m with you. I think your blogs are very easy to read, and get your points across very well. I never would have thought 15.

9 Pings/Trackbacks for "100 Things You Should Know About People: #54 — The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8"
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  6. [...] 100 Things You Should Know About People: #54 — The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8… – The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Score — The most common formula for calculating the readability of a particular passage of text is the Flesch-Kincaid method. The method gives you a Reading Ease formula and also a reading grade level score. [...]

  7. The Hunger Games in Popular Culture – Joshua Porter « tripleatj says:

    [...] don’t believe me, recall that the average adult in the U.S. reads on an 8th grade reading level (source). By Collins making her books so simple that the average U.S. adult could read it, she makes it [...]

  8. […] for the most part, you want to try not to exclude anyone from enjoying your site’s content. The average reading level in the U.S is grade 8. That means that if your writing is so technical that only people a degree in English can […]

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
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