EzineArticles Asks: What Reading Level Should You Target?

Use Words That Speak to Readers

Authors have typically achieved higher levels of education than the average reading level and tend to write at the same reading level as other authors in their niche. So where does that leave the actual reader?

According to many reports (including the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics’ 1992 Adult Literacy survey), the average reading level is the 7th or 8th grade. Combine that with reports of increasingly low-attention spans of Internet users who require even milder language and you’re looking at a reading level of the 6th or 7th grade.

What Should You Do?

Our recommendation is this: If you want to communicate the right idea to the right audience, then you need to use the language and vocabulary with which they’re most comfortable. Sometimes that will require simple words and sometimes more specific language should be used. Ultimately, you need to dig into the demographics of your target audience to determine their reading level. This will ensure you’re sensitive to their needs and will be able to communicate your message.

Also, take a look at recommended reading lists that are prescribed for the various reading levels. There are plenty of words like “assimilate” and “eccentric” that occur on 8th grade vocabulary lists, so it’s important to point out that reading level doesn’t indicate the shortness of words. The key is your readers should understand the words and its context.

What Do You Think?

Now we’d like to pose this highly debated question to you: What Reading Level Should You Target?

Do you believe that articles should be watered down to reach a wider audience? Why or why not?
Do you believe that audiences should be challenged with a higher reading level? Why or why not?

Share your feedback or questions in the comments section below. For those who are curious about where your article’s reading level is, stick around to calculate your current reading level.


Calculating Your Article’s Current Reading Level

There are several formulas to determine reading level (Flesch, Dale-Chall, Gunning, SMOG, etc.).

Read-able.com provides a great Readability Test Tool to help you easily determine the current reading level of your articles. All you have to do is enter your article’s URL and it will provide the actual scores for 6 readability formulas and the text statistics used to calculate your score.

Want a closer look at exactly how these reading levels are calculated? Try the SMOG formula!

We’ve chosen to outline Harry McLaughlin’s SMOG formula because it’s one of the most recent formulas proposed and it’s one of the easiest to calculate. However, if you wish to look further into assessing the reading level of your articles, we strongly recommend reviewing the Dale-Chall formula which incorporates a word list of easy words and has been often referred to as the most accurate formula.

How to Assess the Reading Level of Your Articles Using the SMOG Formula

SMOG stands for Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (wordy or generally unintelligible jargon) and is a measure of readability developed in the late 60s to estimate the years of education needed to understand a piece of writing.

It takes a bit of patience, but here’s how SMOG works:

  1. Select a total of 30 sentences in your article.
  2. Count the number of syllables for each word in each of the 30 sentences.
  3. Count the number of words that contain 3 or more syllables.
  4. Determine the nearest perfect square root of the total number of words with 3 or more syllables (use this PDF chart from ClassZone.com if you need a refresher).
  5. Add the result to the number 3 (a constant in the formula) and you will have calculated the grade level of your article.

For example: Suppose your article has 50 words with 3 or more syllables in the 30 sentences that you reviewed.

  • 3-syllable word count = 50
  • Estimate the nearest square root = 7
  • Add 3 = 10
  • 10th-grade reading level or college reading level

Don’t forget: We’d love to hear from you! Please share your feedback regarding the above question (What Reading Level Should You Target?) and feel free to share your writing’s reading level in the comments section below!

32 Comments »


1

reading help people build better life.

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 11:17 AM

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2
Jonathan Huie writes:

In addition to the general issue of readability, I have also discovered that quite a few of my readers are international – for whom English is a second language.

My own formula – which feedback has shown to be very successful – is to address the readability issue with format, rather than vocabulary.

I write short articles, with very short paragraphs.

I also make heavy use of bulleted or numbered items.

People are willing to deal with a reasonable vocabulary, but the get lost – or just disinterested – in longer, more complex paragraphs.

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 12:28 PM

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Emily writes:

True. I do that too.

I also put ‘vocabulary words’ in contexts that make their meaning obvious from context.

Is it just me? – when I am writing what is going to be audio for a video, I am much clearer and more succinct. Of course the videos are not scholarly. So if I wanted to aim for a lower reading level, I would read the article aloud, and write it for that.

“Tenth grade or college level”? What? So three years of schooling does not improve reading comprehension? Tell me it ain’t so!

A lot depends on the subject of the article. When I write about consciousness, some of my sentences and paragraphs are longer. People who are interested in consciousness are more literate.

It’s interesting to compare the writing on Google + to the writing on LinkedIn. Two different planets.

People who understand the written word well are people who are a lot more likely to have a credit card. It’s truly amazing the difference in intelligence between the callers who don’t have a credit card and those who do. In fact, the more credit cards a person has, the smarter he/she is, up to a point. If you write with an eye to sell something, remember the audience you seek is not in numbers of people, but numbers of disposable dollars.

Every day I write an average of a thousand words for the visitors to my blog, who are motivated. Some parts of it sometimes are a challenge to some of its readers. They don’t see that as a problem. In fact, they say ‘I always know what the new word means.’
Often, the blog is about concepts regarding daily life. Several regular visitors are young people for whom English is a second language.

One thing to remember on this topic is: If you ‘dumb it down,’ you are likely to lose the ones who are attracted to complex ideation, to deep thought.

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Lance Winslow writes:

Emily, I concur of course with what you are saying here, couldn’t have said it better myself. Now then, with regards to your observations between the writing on LinkedIn and Google+ can you elaborate on that a bit, that’s an interesting topic to me. Thank you in advance.

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Emily writes:

You don’t find illiteracy on LinkedIn. Repartee is alive and well there! In consciousness groups, people suggest good places to find out about the Gnosis movement, mention exteriorization of the astrosome, and post links to material that arose from brain mapping. The different schools of thought of Eastern spiritual masters were discussed by some people who were into that, and the masters are from antiquity, some of them.

In the cattlemen’s groups, I learned about weeds as forage (which I already practiced with elk).

In Tarot groups, people whose approaches are vastly different, whose cultures are varied, whose level of expertise ranges from casual to cognoscenti contribute their concept on the subject at hand, and no one gets cranky.

Groups are moderated at LinkedIn. Above your comment, your name and the slogan about what you do is always there, for people to click on your profile and find out about you. This is not only wonderful for networking, but discourages cranks.

In most groups, you don’t find trolls or fanatics. You might find people you feel are simple-minded in their opinions on that subject compared to you. You simply talk to others in that same thread.

When I am in a group more to be informed rather than to share my small knowledge on the subject, I say so upfront when I comment, like the time I mentioned that Canadian thistle sends roots that are disconnected five feet down.

Knowledgeable people are there. Some of them are very successful in their fields. Not too much political talk, and when politics comes up, it is connected to the business at hand.

Google +, I started two weeks or so ago. Nutcases abound, trolls post misinformation on political topics, demand you prove them wrong with incontestable links, and disappear when you do so: They are professional misinformation agents, often favoring Obama, liberal topics, and government spending on folks like themselves, and they are very illiterate. In two weeks, I have flagged about a hundred of the worst offenders. It seems to me the host of them are counterproductive, but, hey, I’m not a community organizer. I think those folks are organized, because now that I have nailed a few of them, I don’t find them on my page.

There is very little discussion or interaction on Google+, and what there is is thin. The technical people and internet marketers seem to be the most sane commenters and presenters. And Martha Stewart. I may not yet have discovered where the good stuff is there, though.

Every day, I post unique, sometimes radical, articles that I find – post them on five social media – to attract intelligent people as potential clients. It works.

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3
Frankie O'Brien writes:

A message should always be presented with maximum simplicity and clarity if its objective is “to be understood.” Therefore consideration for the reading level of a potential audience is irrelevant-assuming you already know your audience isn’t comprised of 1st graders. If you know you’re audience is first graders,then it’s the subject matter that requires adjustment and greater consideration. Focus needs to be on fewest and optimal words that best convey the message.

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 1:02 PM

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4
Duane Lamoureux writes:

Articles should be written at the level of the target audience. As a consultant, I’m targeting a very specific group of people so watering the article down from a broader crowd goes counter to my goal.

Needles to say, writing simply and concisely is also important to convey your ideas. I don’t believe audience should be challenged, like college students, to look up word that are used. Rather, they should ponder the idea(s) you’ve given them.

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 3:22 PM

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5
Robin writes:

Thanks for another great article. The link provided will be very useful. Intellisoft (UK) has a free text processor designed for email courses/autoresponders etc that is very handy for writers because it includes a Flesch-Kinkaid reading age level assessment. You can find a copy at http://xmailwrite.com

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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6
Paul Kemp writes:

I appreciate the comments posted before me. My readers, too, are often international — and I’m used to speaking so ESL people can understand me, so I do that often.

But lately, I’ve decided to write for others who not only have the capacity to understand complex concepts, but also have plenty of room on their credit cards to afford the solutions I propose.

We all give away plenty of information, but my real satisfaction as an author comes from knowing that at least some of my audience put my recommendations into practice. To do that usually requires access to funds, so I’m writing to more mature and well-educated people.

Another thing to be aware of is that many concepts, such as deferred gratification and taking care of the long-term health rather than merely satisfying urgent problems, are not understood by most young people, no matter how simple the words are. These issues of judgement and personal strategy just aren’t on their radar screens…yet.

Be yourself. Be true to your material. If it is important to your target audience, they will find a way to understand it. That’s my belief.

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 4:42 PM

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7
Sheryl McGinnis writes:

This whole topic saddens me to my very core. I can understand writing so that non-natives of the English language can understand but it really bothers me to have to “dumb it down” for others.

I look at writing as a way to entertain and also to enlighten. You may call me a snob but I just don’t like having to adjust my writing to a lower level. Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to say and yes what is language but a way to communicate? But couldn’t the reader also go the extra step and try to improve their vocabulary instead of it all falling on the writer?

I guess I’m getting cranky in my old age. :-)

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 5:42 PM

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Robin writes:

Sheryl

I agree with you in part. English is a beautiful, functional language … we do everything with 26 letters and some punctuation. None of the above, below and on the line rot of Arabic or over-punctuation and intonation of Vietnamese.

As I have an instructional design background, I have always endeavoured to write to target certain reading capability levels. Much can be done without “dumbing down” the language and you’re correct, sometimes those who have difficulty need to try harder or learn more.

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Lance Winslow writes:

Sheryl,

I hear you, and agree. You are not too old, you are passionate about what you do, and you are never too young or old for that my friend.

Lance.

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Emily writes:

Sheryl, I’m there right with you.

For more than a year, I signed up here for ‘ranch’ information. Every day for all that time, many illiterate articles on chicken coops came to me. Finally, there was some fella who thought he was a cattleman. What a joke! I knew way more than he, and I knew nothing about the cattle business. (I had an elk ranch, though, and wanted general information about caring for large grass-eating critters.

Yeah, I kept my subscription to see just how dumb for just how long it could be. Those were spun articles; it was obvious. And all during that time, the organization bragged about how quality authors abounded there.

It’s part of ‘third-generation wealth syndrome’ and the way cultures and empires decline and die.

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8
Alan Loveard writes:

It is truly worrying that reading skills are so poor, not just within the general populace, but even with so-called executives. Many of the latter have MBA’s yet do not or will not read extensive text

Acknowledging that it is critical in all forms of communication to understand and adjust to the mindset of the audience, I live in (probably foolish) hope that my target market of business principals and managers might derive something useful from my writing. Some might even want to hire my skills!

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 6:34 PM

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Emily writes:

Yeah, I know. In the Seventies, I noticed how illiterate young lawyers’ notes were, at depositions, just walking by the table.
Those less-than-literate executives need your talents; your mission is to demonstrate that in such a way they are not as embarrassed as they should be.
Other countries still value language skills. I read that France has a government agency that enforces some language usage.

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9

I don’t like to read the books but I love to read the Bible

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 8:11 PM

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Emily writes:

Ha-ha, even the Bible has versions that are set to certain reading levels. I searched ‘Paraphrase Bible’ and learned about the reading levels.

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10
Gracious Store writes:

It is always better to write in very simple and plain English that will not require you audience to put a dictionary by their side while reading your article

Comment provided October 9, 2013 at 10:46 PM

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11
Sunil Chadha writes:

I absolutely agree to your recommendation that need to use language and vocabulary which make comfortable to audience.

Comment provided October 10, 2013 at 12:34 AM

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12
Sarwar writes:

Ya It’s interesting to compare the writing on Google + to the writing on LinkedIn. Two different planets.

Comment provided October 10, 2013 at 1:46 AM

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13
Anupam Majumdar writes:

i agree if we wont to enjoy to read any article so it is good to write article in simple words

Comment provided October 10, 2013 at 5:59 AM

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14
Randall Magwood writes:

I write articles that sometimes hit on both “extremes”:

1) …articles should be watered down to reach a wider audience?

2) ….audiences should be challenged with a higher reading level?

I don’t assume that my reader is inept when reading my articles. Instead, I like to think that people understand my language and the words that i speak – much better than if they cant speak fluent English.

Comment provided October 10, 2013 at 3:26 PM

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15
Lance Winslow writes:

I would like to discuss a sub-topic in this venue, namely the reality that with so many emerging markets we see new English Speaking readers, sometimes this is their second, third, or even forth language. Thus, they speak, read and perhaps write in “Basic English” or “Simple English” which is defined as English with a mild vocabulary of about 750 – 850 words. (Cite: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English )

It would appear to me, to bring this back to the topic at hand, that if you want to reach a global audience, you might to consider that.

Now then, if you are indeed, writing in an industry, educational, or scientific niche, this will most likely not always be possible. However, an author may want to have articles written for different audiences. Article written for new English Speakers, average Facebook users, and those who know all the jargon in their niche. If you insult the intelligence of your reader, you’ll do a disservice to yourself in that regard, and for those who read very little, if you use big words and complex sentences, it might be too taxing on their brains, thus, no fun to read and therefore they probably won’t. See those points?

Comment provided October 11, 2013 at 2:58 AM

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16

article writing is a talent it”s not for everyone, definitely not for me, my English is not good enough to right good articles

Comment provided October 11, 2013 at 10:34 AM

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17
Emily writes:

You know, occasionally I write what a ‘vocabulary word’ means, in parentheses, after it. And I phrase sentences with ‘vocabulary words’ in such a way the meaning can easily be deduced or figured out.

I suggest to EzineArticles that they publish articles to readers in categories of reading level, or at least have an indication of reading level. That way, the writers who are limited can connect with the readers who are. That way, people who seek expert presentations can easily connect with them.

That might even help with their ads.

Were I EzineArticles, I would have a service people pay for that makes an article literate that isn’t. It would be income for EzineArticles, would probably attract more writers (more ads!), and increase readership to that class of article. EzineArticles could even charge one price to just patch up what is written, and another price to return the article marked up, with some explanation or an ad for training.

For training, I can tell you there are a lot of English majors waiting tables, or looking for any job, out there, that they could hire.

Comment provided October 11, 2013 at 2:22 PM

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Emily,

Those are some great suggestions! We’ll definitely take a look at them and, if it makes sense, implement them where appropriate. Thanks for your time and thoughtfulness. :-)

Marc

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Emily writes:

You are very welcome, Marc. It’s a win-win-win idea.You can do it.
You could even fix it so a reader could choose whether he/she wanted to designate a reading level or not, in which case the marking on the individual articles would be useful.
That sounds like a lot of work, rearranging the system, but worth it.
Probably you would do it as of the time you start the program, not going back.
I am willing to help.

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18
Jean Kearsley writes:

After correctly noting that “it’s important to point out that reading level doesn’t indicate the shortness of words,” it’s unfortunate that the readability tool you chose to illustrate was SMOG, which draws exactly that conclusion, via its inverse. SMOG (great name, I have to admit) perpetuates the simplistic idea that syllable length is an infallible measure of complexity (“Okay, tell me that in words of one syllable”).

For a fuller picture of the various readability indices – and a good overview of the entire subject – you can’t go wrong by checking out Wikipedia’s Readability article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability).

To quickly check the readability of text, i use the computation engine for the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level indicators already built into the spelling & grammar checker (“Spell-check”) for most releases of MS Word. (Find the Work Options / Proofing menu, and check the box for “Show readability statistics.”)

Comment provided October 18, 2013 at 1:21 PM

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davidinnotts writes:

It’s still a complex thing for most authors, Jean – and thanks for your good comments in this thread. I agree that the Wikipedia article is a good grounding, but I think the summary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability#Using_the_readability_formulas) makes the best point: “Writing experts have warned that if you “write to the formula,” that is, attempt to simplify the text only by changing the length of the words and sentences, you may end up with text that is more difficult to read.”

Learn what works, then follow your (upskilled) instinct. Just use the formulas to remind yourself occasionally. The value of SMOG is that it’s quick and easy and reasonably accurate, not that it’s infallible. Syllable count is a good guide to readability, but not the last word – see my comment below, no. 19.

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19
davidinnotts writes:

Just for a change, I’ve been watching this one play out!

I’m fascinated by the range of passionate positions that we authors take and yet, reading all this thread back, it’s clear that we all want to communicate well to our intended readership, and know well how to do it.

The key point to recognize, then, is that people vary widely in their reading skills, and we should write so that our clientle can read and enjoy what we write. On the whole, these ‘tests’ for readablilty are a good rule of thumb, but we shouldn’t expect them to cover all situations, nor should we use them on every article we write. After all, pitching to the right level is just a skill to learn, and re-test occasionally.

Three things to remember, then, about ‘reading levels’, summing up the article and the 28 comments so far:

1) Reading is just about the highest level mental skill in everyday use, and it IS tough. Half of people struggle reading more than basic English – not that they can’t do it, but it’s hard work for them. One in 10 people are what is often called ‘functionally illiterate’ – they have to work hard to read anything – not that they won’t. Only one in 10 can fluently read academic writing, with its complex sentence and paragraph structure – yet few of them despise a writer who pitches at the average reader. This fact is no indictment on anyone; it’s just the ‘bell curve’ of intelligence at work. Written language, after all, was constructed for the brightest intellects to communicate with each other, back when, not for average people.

2) How easily we read a piece of writing depends, not just on basic intelligence, but also on how keen we are to know what it’s trying to tell us. The UK ‘Sun’ top-selling tabloid newspaper pitches its stuff at ‘age 8’ Reading Level (US 3rd grade?), but with added specialist words for each topic. Scientific jargon would put off its readership quickly, but specialist soccer language or medical terminology is no problem: its readers are keen to know this stuff! Yet a specialist academic journal wouldn’t dream of publishing anything intended for ‘the masses’; it would soon lose credibility with its readers (who maybe want to maintain the ‘mystique’). But if people are bored by what they read, they’ll exit at speed!

3) Exactly the same applies to ESL. If your fluency in your first and other languages is high, you’re intelligent enough to read complex constructions in English. It’s metaphor, simile and puns that are hard to understand, where English follows no rules. For English-speaking natives, think back to reading Shakspere: much of his nuance, idiom and jokes is lost to us now, because the necessary context is gone. We’re told that his plays often had his audiences in stitches, at points where in a performance today he doesn’t raise a giggle. But the basic, wonderful linguistic skill still shines through and enthralls us. So if you’re writing for new English speakers, use basic language; yet a year of English speaking and writing later, expect the same people to be fluent in understanding nuance (even though they’ll slip themselves), as they put their skills in their native language to work in English.

As so many have already said: don’t dumb it down – people hate to be patronized. But DO pitch your writing to the people you want to impress.

Comment provided October 22, 2013 at 9:08 AM

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20

I would speak/write at my own reading level. My audience is comprised of people who have goals similar to my own goals. I am a small business owner and my target audience is other small business owners.

I would never “lower” the reading level of my articles. The reader should grab a dictionary (like I do) when they don’t understand the terminology.

Comment provided October 31, 2013 at 7:40 PM

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21
Salihu S Dikko writes:

From the onset, the readers should be able to get the message in brief and in an easy to understand wordings, that will save the time of opting for dictionary. The topic or the heading, if well interested, will go a long way attracting audiences. And it is always said that: in business, a satisfied customer will promote the product free of charge to friends and associates.

Comment provided November 3, 2013 at 10:50 AM

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