Readability is a multifaceted issue – more than just the ease or difficulty of the language of the text you’re reading. It’s also about how well the intended readers can understand the information provided, and its takeaway message. This relates to individual levels of education and literacy, as well as general and technical knowledge, and varies greatly from person to person, among teenagers and adults.
The role of background knowledge was highlighted in early research by William Labov in New York city (Language in the Inner City, 1972). He managed to teach illiterate teenagers (members of a motor-cycle group) to read by working with them through a motor-cycle maintenance manual. Their technical knowledge facilitated their reading and understanding of the text despite its technical language.
Readability as a concept needs to take account of who the readers are, as much as the language and type of text being read.
The most widely used readability checkers focus on the language of the text, and on the numbers of long words and long sentences in it. They do not assess other equally important aspects of language difficulty in either, such as:
- how familiar or unfamiliar they are to the reader
- whether the words used tend to be abstract rather than concrete
- whether new vocabulary is continually being introduced with/without clear explanation or connections with what went before
- how intricate the sentence structure is – the relationship between its clauses
- how predictable of variable the sentence openings are
- whether there’s sufficient overlap of content between sentences to develop the message and carry it forward
Whatever metrics the readability checker offers, they’re only the tip of the iceberg for readers.
Formats: more and less formal types of texts
Other readability hurdles not often discussed are those created by the shape of the text itself, especially its density, and the used of paragraphs. Formal writing e.g. government reports of academic articles that use long, often densely worded paragraphs are a turnoff for those with lower levels of literacy. They naturally prefer less dense vehicles of information, e.g. brochures, which make considerable use of space to articulate information.
Brochure, flyers and other informal (”ephemeral”) types of publication necessarily present far less information than their formal counterparts. Content writers and developers have to be very selective about what to communicate. But less is probably more in terms of readability and understandability for people with lower levels of literacty, including non-English-speaking immigrants.
Much research on readability has concentrated on schoolbooks and grading their suitability for children at different lower levels of education and in different subject areas. The different reading skills among students at target grade levels have been little researched, though they are better recognised within the Australian NAPLAN scheme than by the international readability checkers.
The applicability of standard readability checker metrics to mixed adult readerships remains underresearched – apart from recent Australian research that highlights the differences in reading ability of first- and second-language users of English. They may be challenged by individual words and phrases in sentences, which impairs their ability to understand the overall message of the paragraph or text. Their typically slower (? more careful) pace of reading has emerged as a key issue for content designers to embrace. See further in Research and Testing. [LINK]
More aspects of readability and ways of including different readerships are discussed in the ENGAGING chapter of AMOS.