Ways to Lower the Reading Level

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Writers of safety communications know that it’s crucial to produce highly readable content to help prevent injuries and save people’s lives. They know that the average reader has a reading level between sixth and eighth grade and that readers are more likely to read content that matches their reading level. Beyond making content readable, writers also consider the length of content. Readers are more likely to read shorter content than longer content, and content that has a clear purpose.

If you want to make your words matter to people, you need to take readability seriously.

What is Readability?

Most simply, readability is a measure of how easy it is to read your writing. It has to do with semantics and syntax, or the length of words and sentences. Often, the readability score indicates the number of years of education required to understand the writing.

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For more tips on working with Reading Levels in MS Word, see Section 17 of Editing in Word 365.

Test Readability

You can use readability formulas to assess reading level. There are software and websites that can do this for you. Readability formulas assess semantics and syntax. Many formulas measure

  • words according to their average length in characters or syllables
  • sentences according to average length in characters or words
  • unfamiliar or high frequency words

The chart summarizes readability formulas appropriate for a variety of audiences. Use one or several of the formulas to test your content. As you become more experienced, you will likely rely less and less on such formulas and become adept at targeting writing to the appropriate reading level for the audience.


What It Measures

How Each Can Best Be Used

Grade equivalent score: represents a student’s ability level in comparison to students who were in the specific test’s norming group
Flesch Reading Ease Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level• syllables per word and words per sentence• appropriate for grades 3 to 12
Fry Readability Graph• appropriate for elementary through college
Gunning Fog Score• words per sentence and complex words (three or more syllables)• often used for health care material and general business publications
SMOG Index• complex words (three or more syllables)• often used for health care material
Coleman Liau Index• characters per word and words per sentence• appropriate for grade 4 to college
Spache• words per sentence and unfamiliar words (words not in Familiar Word List)• appropriate for grades 1 to 3• highlights difficult words that need to be shortened/simplified
Dale-Chall• words per sentence and unfamiliar words (words not in Familiar Word List)• appropriate for grade 4 to 12 highlights difficult words that need to be shortened/simplified
Lexile measure: represents a student’s level on a developmental scale of reading ability. Matches student with text at whatever level the student is reading.
Lexile• words per sentence and words against a frequency list– sentence length carries more weight than word frequency• appropriate when working on texts with defined literacy levels

For educational publishing, I recommend using Spache for students in grades 1 to 3 and Dale Chall for students in grade 4 and beyond. These formulas are based on the use of familiar words rather than syllable or word counts. Research shows that readers find it easier to read, process, and recall content if they find the words familiar. The formulas highlight the difficult words and include a list of more common words. In addition, these formulas have been tested scientifically and are open source.

Limitations of Readability Formulas

Readability formulas have limitations. They can’t assess

  • how complex the ideas are
  • whether the content is logically ordered
  • whether the vocabulary is appropriate for the audience
  • whether there is a gender or cultural bias
  • whether the design, form, and font style help make content easier to read

You need to address these types of limitations as part of good writing.

Ways to Lower Reading Level: Write Clearly, Simply, and With Purpose

Write clearly and use plain language. Shorten the number of words in your sentences. Shorten the number of sentences in paragraphs and when you can, shorten the number of paragraphs.

At the word level

  • Use words with fewer syllables.
  • Define new terms using plain language.
  • Do not use contractions (e.g., don’t).
  • Omit needless words.

At the sentence level

  • Write one idea per sentence.
  • Keep sentence structure simple by writing sentences in subject-verb order.
  • Vary length of sentences but aim for less than 20 words (even less, depending on audience).
  • Use active voice.
  • Minimize phrases and clauses.

At the paragraph level

  • Shorten paragraphs.
  • Chunk information.
  • Use meaningful headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
  • Make use of infographics to communicate information.

Making content highly readable is important for all kinds of communications, not just those that involve health and safety. Your goal should be to maximize the impact of your words, whether they appear in print or digital media.

Read More

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Online Readability Test Tools

Making Writing More Readable

Word Lists