Measuring Text Readability Using Reading Level

Measuring Text Readability Using Reading Level

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7365-4.ch008
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Reading grade level calculations have been in use for over a century in the United States and have guided the selection of texts used in school programs. Government agencies at all levels, the military in its various branches, and editors of publications have found such formulas of use in setting policy or determining who can participate in programs. As readership is now a worldwide phenomenon with English as the primary language of the internet, reading grade level calculations can also be useful in creating web pages and assigning reading texts to large multi-user classes (MOOCs) run over the internet. In this regard, it is possible for faculty to be assured that the material is reachable to a wide audience by checking reading grade level and providing additional guidance for the more difficult items in the form of discussion or focused questions. Authors can use the formulas as a tool to check the quality of their own writing and improve sections which are unnecessarily complex.
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In mid-nineteenth century America schoolrooms were generally not divided into grade levels. Over time grade levels were added and methods were developed to measure the grade level of texts. As the need for graded material grew, there was an extensive push for more scientific methods to measure the grade level of specific texts used in the classroom. The result was the first readability formulas coming in to use in the 1920s. (Wolf, 2013) Much of the early work on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula was done by Rudolf Flesch in the 1940s (Flesch, 1979). Flesch had been conducting reading studies, observing readers and how they approach long words, and examining punctuation and sentence length. He was an active proponent of “plain English” and was known though many books, in particular Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It (1955). He was a critic of the “look-say” method of teaching reading popular in the 1950s, and he advocated a method for teaching reading that became known as the “look and guess” method and started a revival of phonics which taught learners to sound out words using rules (Blumenfeld, 2015). The Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test and Reading Ease Test came about from the initial work of Rudolf Flesch and subsequent refinements by J. Peter Kincaid. These changes were added by Kincaid while performing work for the United States Navy. Noting that the Flesch-Kincaid grade level was developed for adults, J. Peter Kincaid pointed out:

Among other things we can reasonably measure: the number of commonly understood words, sentence complexity, the number of abstract ideas, and the use of personal pronouns. Beyond these factors, it takes the expertise of the writer and editor to judge organization of the text and whether or not the text conveys the proper information. (McClure, 1987)

In a 1987 interview J. Peter Kincaid stated:

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