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Readability Formulas Part 2: How Can We Use Them Effectively?

Updated: May 4, 2023

Writing for our audience is one of the key parts of plain language. Many writers use readability formulas to judge if a text is appropriate for their audience. In the first part of this series, we explained how readability formulas work. For this post, we’ll look at the limitations of readability tests and how we can use them effectively in our work.

A woman is writing at a desk

The Limitations of Readability Scoring

Our last post introduced some of the challenges of readability scoring. The same text can be scored at different levels and there’s no consensus about what grade levels mean. These tests don’t measure the organization and cohesion of the document. Complete nonsense can score as very readable if the sentences are short enough.

The other limitations with readability formulas come from two false ideas:

  1. Readability equals usability

  2. All readers are the same

Readability isn’t Usability

Readability is defined as how easy it is to read a text. This is often misrepresented to mean how easy a text is to understand. What readability tests measure actually has little connection to the usability of a text.

Judging the usability of a text means looking for:

  • Clear, descriptive headings

  • The order and organization of content

  • Cohesion and flow

  • Images and graphics that add meaning

The only real way to test usability is to ask our audience.

A man with Down syndrome uses a tablet.

Readers are Individuals

Think about your experience as a reader. What does it take to really understand a text?

As readers, we draw on so many skills to understand written communication. Reading comprehension involves processes like:

  • Drawing on background knowledge

  • Making connections to our lived experiences

  • Using context clues to infer meaning

  • Processing text features

Focusing on a specific reading level diminishes the knowledge and life experiences adult readers bring to the table.

Someone’s education level doesn’t tell us about their strengths and challenges as a reader. Readability tests can’t tell you if your text aligns with the personal interests of or is relevant to the needs of your audience. We need relationships with our audience to know what does and doesn’t work for them.

How can we effectively use readability formulas?

Despite their shortcomings, readability formulas can help us identify potential issues with our text. The goal is not to achieve a specific readability score. Instead, we want to edit our text to best serve our audience.

There are a few things to keep in mind when using these tools to edit your writing:

Choose Words Your Audience Knows

Formulas will always score multisyllable words as more difficult than words with one or two syllables. It’s easy to think just changing words to synonyms with fewer syllables is a quick fix for making a text more accessible. Instead, think about your audience:

  • What words do they use when they talk about this topic?

  • How is this topic written about by other organizations?

  • Does a word have other meanings they might be more familiar with?

For example, most people associate “clinic” with healthcare, so it can be confusing when other services are called “clinics.” It might take more words or longer words to accurately describe your work, but that’s ok if it reduces confusion overall.

Vary Your Sentence Lengths

Readability tests might make you think every sentence should be as short as possible. When we only write in short sentences, our writing feels choppy and disjointed. Writing that sounds natural has varying sentence lengths and uses words and phrases that connect ideas together.

You can aim for an average sentence length of 15-20 words. If you find most of your sentences are over 20 words, that’s a great starting point for revisions. If you decide to keep a long, complex sentence try to make the sentences before and after shorter to give the reader a break.

Creating documents our audience can use means looking beyond reading level. It’s important to think about how materials are being shared and used. We need to include text features that help guide readers. And there need to be formal and informal ways to collect feedback from our audience. Without these pieces, our writing will never make the grade.



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