I wish we would stop talking about reading grade level and instead talk about reading ease. The average person thinks that a higher reading grade level means a piece of writing is better. In fact, a higher grade level means something is harder to read.
The reading grade level formula is shockingly simple. Grade level goes up when a sentence has more words or the words have more syllables. Some formulas sub out the syllable factor for number of characters or frequency of hard words, but whatever. We’re still dealing with formulas that seemingly reward making things harder to read.
We know that writing at a higher grade level is harder to read because people do better at reading comprehension tests as the grade level goes down. Also, more people read a newspaper after the paper lowers its grade level. What’s more, writing style guides universally recommend writing in a simpler way–that is, at a lower grade level.
Even Rudolf Flesch advocates writing at a lower grade level.
(Rudolf Flesch, by the way, is the guy who popularized the idea of reading grade level in the 1940s and 50s. You may know the name Flesch from Microsoft Word, which uses “Flesch Reading Ease” and “Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level” in its readability statistics. His books are awesome and in them he advocates for plain writing. As of January 2015, you can read his 1949 classic, The Art of Readable Writing, online.)
Contrast reading grade level with reading ease. Flesch’s “Reading Ease” formula is great. A higher score means something is easier to read. Here’s the chart from The Art of Readable Writing.
Gotta love the “Take a pencil…” method. I wonder if the world would better understand what good writing was if we used the pencil method in place of an opaque program.
The reading grade level formula just flips the impacts of words per sentence and syllables per word. For reading ease, fewer words and fewer syllables means a higher score. For reading grade level, fewer words and fewer syllables means a lower grade level. Here are the formulas:
Reading Ease = 206.835 – (1.015*total words/total sentences) – (84.6*total syllables/total words).
Reading Grade Level = (.39*total words/total sentences) + (11.8*total syllables/total words) – 15.59.
What were minuses become pluses. And where higher was better, higher becomes worse.
The problem with reading grade level is that most people think it describes a person’s abilities–which we’d like to be higher–when in fact it describes the difficulty of reading something–which we’d like to be lower.
There’s no way out of that confusion, which is why it would be nice if we all stopped talking about grade level and started talking about reading ease.
Further Reading: In this awesome paper from 2004, William H. DuBay reviews the various attempts at creating readability formulas. And in this article, you can see a bunch of charts that illustrate how a higher grade level isn’t a good thing.