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When Should I Use Readability Formulas and When Should I Not?

When Should I Use Readability Formulas
1) Use readability formulas only as tools for occasional limited use — not as ways to measure the overall suitability of documents. Use scores from readability formulas to check on difficulty of words and sentences — not as precise indicators of comprehension, not as summary assessments of reading ease or usability, and not as a guide to writing. If your material is too difficult for your readers, then a readability score can assist you in making revisions to improve the readability. In general, write clearly and cohesively in "plain language." Make clear and concise writing your general goal for any written material for any audience. Rely on feedback from your intended readers to tell you if your materials are clear and effective.

2) Pick your readability formula and method carefully. Scoring by hand can be more reliable than computer scoring. Also, working directly with the text makes you more aware of your writing habits and helps you spot ways to improve. If you use a computerized readability formula, prepare the text first to avoid misleading results. This includes removing embedded punctuation and text that is not in full sentences.

3) Interpret a score from a readability formula as indicating a general range of difficulty rather than a specific grade level.

4) Report scores from readability formulas in ways that acknowledge the narrow scope and limitations of readability formulas. When reporting a readability score, indicate which formula and method that you used, what it measures, and include other information to help people interpret the score meaningfully. Tell if you have tested the material with the intended readers. Consider listing the words that the readability formula considered "difficult" (those with 3+ syllables) to help others judge if readers will find these difficult words familiar or unfamiliar.

5) Do not use readability formulas to assess overall suitability. Use readability formulas only as tools for occasional limited use — not for measuring overall suitability of material.

6) Use readability formulas as a tool for identifying long words and long sentences that may be too difficult for your intended readers.

7) Don't use a score for reading grade level as your only indicator of difficulty or as a measure of comprehension. Keeping in mind that readability formulas only measure the length of individual words and sentences, don't use them as a summary indicator or as your sole or final standard for judging suitability of materials.

8) Don't try to make written material easier to read by shortening sentences and substituting short words for long ones. Although you may improve the readability score, you also may make your material choppy and harder to read.

9) When you need to reduce the reading difficulty of your materials, use readability formulas in combination with other guidelines. Treat readability formulas as only one tool among many that can help you see ways to make materials easy for people to understand and use. Use the formulas to screen for complexity of words and sentences, but use other guidelines to simplify your the material.

10) Write in plain English for any material. Since so many consumer-related written materials are too difficult for their intended readers, it's crucial to make your materials as clear and simple and cohesive as you can. As a general goal, try to get the reading grade level of your materials as low as you can without losing important content or distorting the meaning, and without sounding condescending to the reader. This goal applies to materials you create for any audience: highly-skilled readers appreciate materials that are clear and simple just as much as less-skilled readers. Do not worry about "talking down" to highly skilled readers because you can adjust how you write in plain English based on the literacy skills of your intended audience. For example, if you are writing in plain English for clinicians, you will use vocabulary that is more difficult than if you are writing for the general public.

11) Rely on feedback from your intended readers. An appropriate reading grade level helps to make print material easy to read, but it doesn't guarantee that people will understand what they read, or put it to use. Achieving a good match between the reading level of your material and the reading skills of your readers is not final evidence that materials are easy to understand. The real test of success is if your readers can understand and use your materials. To find out, you'll need to get feedback directly from them.

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