Why "reading levels" aren't as useful as you think in judging writing quality


Posted Oct. 3, 2018

Research suggests that the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level.
That means the average reader could struggle to understand written materials that use a vocabulary or grammar more advanced than the average student in the eighth grade has mastered.
As a result, many business writers try to keep their writing simple and straightforward enough that a kid in middle school could understand (unless they are specifically writing to a more educated audience). They might even apply some kind of scoring formula to determine the approximate reading grade level of the work. The Flesch-Kincaid is one of the best known of these; for reference, it scores Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss at -1.03, indicating it’s suitable for a kindergartener (that is, one year before first grade) and Federalist Paper No. 10 at grade level 16.96, meaning it represents a post-graduate level of complexity.
However, reading level diagnostics like the Fleisch-Kincaid are not necessarily as accurate you think. Scores for Green Eggs and Ham actually range from -2.04 (using the Automated Readability Index) to 5.29 (using the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook test). That’s a huge range! How do you determine which one is “right”?
Another complicating factor: readers can have more than one reading level, depending on domain and subject matter. For that matter, readers can have more than one reading level just according to different reading tests!
This may help explain why people often read works outside their normal grade level. A good example is Harry Potter. The various Harry Potter books tend to score around the 5th to 7th grade reading level, yet the series has enjoyed enormous popularity from readers as young as second grade to readers with advanced education.
Indeed, it can be good to expose readers to writing outside their “normal” reading level. The idea that we should match our writing to the reading level of our audience has been taken for granted for a long time, but research is beginning to suggest that challenging readers with writing above their normal reading level can actually facilitate learning. A study published in the Journal of Educational Research says, regarding third graders, “Results indicate that weaker readers, using texts at two, three, and four grade levels above their instructional levels with the assistance of lead readers [other, better reading, third graders], outscored both proficient and less proficient students in the control group across multiple measures of reading achievement.”
So, what does this all mean for grown-up business writers?
It depends. Reading level remains a good guideline for writing works that can be widely understood, but it’s a rough guideline at best. Writing at the level most suited to your intended audience is always the more important consideration. For example, the Flesch-Kincaid readability of this article is 9.5. That’s a little higher than average, but remember that most of our readers are professionals, technologists, and engineers – and our whole purpose is to educate and train.
That said, above all else, clarity remains king. If that demands a higher or lower reading level, adjust as appropriate.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.