Readability:
Beyond the Basics

Will a reader understand your writing?

Readability measures how easily someone understands you.

Most discussions of readability talk about a grade level or some other numerical index.

This page will show how to calculate numbers. But numbers are only a part of the story.

Readability is so much more than a number....

In fact, many good writers do quite well without ever thinking about readability.

I'm one of those writers when I'm writing for primary school children. That's because as a primary teacher I have read thousands of children's books. After twenty years in the classroom, I know what a six-year old can read and how much more complexity a nine-year old can handle.

But when I write for the general adult population

like I am right now,

I check for readability.

That's because most of what I read as an adult is written at a much higher level than I aim for in my writing. I know that I tend to write with more complexity than most readers are comfortable with.

When a writer should check for readability

1. When the writer is inexperienced.

If you are writing your first pieces for publication,

if you are writing for a new audience,

it's a good idea to do some sort of readability check.

2. When you have a general audience that may include poor readers.

When I write for the general public I try to stay at a Grade 7.9 level at most. Some newspapers aim at Grade 5.

3. When the material will be difficult for the reader.

If your ideas are complex, you need to make your writing simple. Your writing should be clear so your ideas can shine through.

New or hard idea=Low Grade level

What makes for good readability

1. White space. An author in a traditional publishing house has no control over this. A self publishing author does. White space relaxes the eyes. Relaxed eyes make for relaxed minds. Be generous with the space around your written text.

2. Graphics. Again, a self publishing author will have more to do with this than an author who works with a traditional publishing house. Graphics include photos or other illustrations and tables, graphs and charts. They illustrate ideas. They also break up text and add to the white space.

3. Humour. Humour is relaxing. It serves to open the reader's mind. Humour can also make a point more memorable.

4. Metaphor. A metaphor says that one thing is like another. When I tell you that writing is the act of taking the reader by the hand and leading him or her from one idea to the next, I am creating a metaphor.

I can take that further. I can talk about rocks and tree roots that get in the way. I can talk about how to clear the path. All of these build a picture for the reader that is easy for anyone to understand. When I write that readability is one way to smooth the path for the reader, I increase readability because smoothing a path is a common idea.

5. Structure. When a piece of writing follows a predictable structure, it is easier to follow.

An example from childhood --

  • Once upon a time...

  • a problem repeats three times... (often using the same words : I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in!)


  • the hero finds a resolution...

  • THE END

    In non-fiction, use heading and subheadings. Parallel structure really helps.


6. Predictability. Predictability helps all readers. It is vital when writing for beginning readers. Natural language is the best vehicle for predictability. In the same category would be story language: Once upon a time, a little old woman, a beautiful princess, an ugly troll...

Rhyming, when done perfectly, is wonderfully predictable. I have taught many children to read with Dr. Seuss books because he uses both natural language and rhyme so well it's almost impossible not to read his books easily.

7. Details and examples. Use examples and give details like a lawyer presenting a case. When I reminded you of The Three Little Pigs, above, I gave you an example that made it easier for you to understand one aspect of structure.

8. Go short. Finally, the numbers part.

Shorter is generally easier to read.

Shorter paragraphs

shorter sentences

shorter words...

How to calculate readability

There are many different readability indexes.

Micro Power & Light Co. sells software that checks nine readability formulae:

Dale-Chall: for upper elementary through secondary material

Flesch Reading Ease: gives a score for adult material ranging between 0 and 100 (higher score is easier to read.) calculation below

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: upper elementary. Used by the US Department of Defense. calculation below

Fry Graph: elementary to beyond university

FOGG: adult material calculation below

Powers-Summer-Kearl: early elementary grades

SMOG: grade level for 100% comprehension

FORCAST: for questionnaires, forms, tests, etc.

Spache: grades one to four Disclaimer: I have not used this software.

I use the Fogg Index when I am testing anything not in my word processor, like a magazine I want to write for.

When I have something in Word, I can get the two Flesch indexes as well as a count of passive sentences.

On my Mac I go to Tools on the menu bar. Then I click on Spelling and Grammar. After the check, the readability statistics show in a dialogue box.

Calculations for Flesch Reading Ease: Choose a passage to test. Count the number of sentences, words, and syllables.

For those of you unsure about syllables, I tell my Grade ones that syllables are claps.

For the more sophisticated, they are vowel sounds. Be careful that you are counting vowel sounds and not the number of vowels. There is one syllable in clap. There are three syllables in syllable.

The formula is 206.835-(1.015xASL)-(84.6xASW) where ASL (average sentence length) is the numbers of words divided by the number of sentences and ASW (average number of syllables per word) is the number of syllables divided by the number of words.

The result will be 1-100, with 100 being the easiest to read.

Calculations for Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: Choose a passage to test. Count the number of sentences, words, and syllables. For those of you unsure about syllables, I tell my Grade ones that syllables are claps.

For the more sophisticated, they are vowel sounds. Be careful that you are counting vowel sounds and not the number of vowels. There is one syllable in clap. There are three syllables in syllable. The formula is (.39xASL)+(11.8xASW)-15.59 where ASL (average sentence length) is the numbers of words divided by the number of sentences and ASW (average number of syllables per word) is the number of syllables divided by the number of words.

The result will be a school grade. For example, 7.3 means someone in November of Grade 7 in North America can read the material.

Calculations for the Fogg Index: Choose a sample 100-125 words long.

Count the sentences and words. In this case, each independent clause is a sentence. For example, I am a lady and he is a clod counts as two sentences because I am a lady is an independent clause. So is he is a clod.

Divide the word count by the sentence count. This will give you the average sentence length.

Next count all the words with three or more syllables. These are the hard words. For those of you unsure about syllables, I tell my Grade ones that syllables are claps.

For the more sophisticated, they are vowel sounds. Be careful that you are counting vowel sounds and not the number of vowels. There is one syllable in clap. There are three syllables in syllable.

In this case, DO NOT COUNT

  • compound words -- two little words that make one word like, butterfly, underpants, or firefighter.
  • words with three syllables that start a sentence.
  • proper names.
  • words that have three syllables because of a suffix. A suffix is an ending like ing or ed. Divide the number of hard words by the total number of words. That will give you the percentage of hard words. (Use 12.3, not .123) Add the average sentence length and the percentage of hard words.

    Multiply by 0.4. The result is a reading grade level

    Sample Calculations

    I've used a passage from this page to show how the numbers work.

    I have not used this software. I use the Fogg Index when I am testing anything not in my word processor, like a magazine I want to write for.

    When I have something in Word, I can get the two Flesch indexes as well as a count of passive sentences. On my Mac I go to Tools on the menu bar. Then I click on Spelling and Grammar. After the check, the readability statistics show in a dialogue box.

    Calculations for Flesch Reading Ease: Choose a passage to test. Count the number of sentences, words, and syllables. For those of you unsure about syllables, I tell my Grade ones that syllables are claps.


    I have 113 words, 9 sentences, 153 syllables, and 9 hard words (those with three or more syllables).
    ASL is 113÷9=12.56
    ASW is 153÷13=1.35
    % of hard words is 7.96%

    Flesch Reading Ease: 206.835-(1.015x12.56)-(84.6x1.35)=79.8. My computer gave me 77.2, but I'm not going to quibble over a couple of points on a 100 points scale.

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: (0.39x12.79)+(11.8x1.35)-15.59=5.2. My computer gave me 5.5, but again, I'm not going to quibble over that difference.

    Fogg Index: (12.56+79.6)x0.4=5.1. And I'm smiling like a Cheshire cat since I wanted to keep the reading level to 7.9 at the most. Staying within Grade 5 for this difficult part is icing on the cake.

    I hope you've survived the numbers part of this.

    And I hope you understand that the numbers are only a tool. So much more goes into determining readability...

    A good editor helps you to keep readability in mind. I would be honored if you chose me to edit your work. A sample edit of 500 words will give you an idea of what I can do for you.



    Ensuring good readability is one of the editing services offered here. Check the home page to see others.

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