Originally designed to help classroom teachers choose textbooks for their students, most readability formulas give a score in terms of a grade level. But it isn't enough just to know how far your readers went in school. Many adults actually read at a level 3 to 5 grades lower than their last completed year of school. That's just one of the facts you need to know to be able to effectively assess the readability of your printed material.
Many people say that they write easy to read materials. When asked how they know, they say that they check it with the readability formula that's included with their word processing program. While being better than nothing, these formulas are less than a perfect tool to assess reading ease. And whether you use a computerized application or test the readability by hand, there are things you need to know and do in order to get a meaningful result. You need to carefully select the sample text. You need to correctly apply the assessment tool. And you need to understand how to accurately interpret the results.
There are over one hundred factors that affect how easy, or hard, a given document is to read and understand. These factors include sentence length, word choice, layout, tone, organization, use of illustrations, and appeal to the reader. Readability formulas often look at only two or three of these factors - most commonly, the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in a word.
Despite their limitations, though, readability assessments can be useful tools. The key is to take the necessary steps to accurately interpret the results. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are assessing the readability of written healthcare information.
Use the Proper Method to Get an Accurate Score
Selecting your sample. Different tests for readability use different methods for choosing samples. It is important to follow the prescribed method for selecting a sample in order to get an accurate score. There are, however, general guidelines you should follow in order to get the most accurate reading.
When you choose text to assess, you should choose text that has at least 30 sentences, or 300 to 500 words. If you want to assess lengthy text, be sure you take samples from the beginning, middle, and end of the document. Select passages with connected, flowing text. Do not include the first and last sentences, however. They often are not characteristic of the rest of the text.
Assessing readability "by hand." There are several effective tools for assessing reading levels "manually." Two of the most commonly used tools are the Fry and the SMOG assessments.
To use the Fry Formula, you count the number of syllables and sentences in three 100-word passages. You then average each set of figures and refer to a graph to find the grade level equivalent of the text. Although some people find this method tedious, it is a particularly useful tool for assessing lower reading-level materials.
For the SMOG, you count all the words with three or more syllables in three 10-sentence passages. Then you refer to a table to find the grade level equivalent. This tool includes a conversion chart to assess text that has less than 30 sentences.
The SMOG can be a useful tool to assess higher reading-level materials. But it is not as accurate as other methods for more basic written information. Regardless of which manual assessment tool you use, be sure to follow the directions exactly. This includes counting repetitive multi-syllabic words, such as "med-i-ca-tion" each time the word appears in the text.