General web copy needs a reading grade of 9 or less

If you’re writing for a general web audience, aim for an average reading grade of 9 or less. Here’s why, and how to measure (and lower) your copy’s reading grade.

What’s a reading grade?

A reading grade indicates the years of education an average reader would need to be comfortable reading your text.

There are different systems for measuring this grade. Each uses a different formula, but common keys are average word length (measured either in syllables or letters), and sentence length.

Why have a limit so low?

Literacy levels in Australia

Over 45% of Australians aged 15+ have reading skills below the “minimum required … to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work”. 37% meet, but don’t exceed, that level.

These statistics are fairly well in line with other OECD countries (the USA (PDF), for example).

The challenges of reading on-screen

Research generally agrees that reading from a screen is slower than reading on paper, and suggests that it could reduce comprehension.

Smaller screens, which are becoming more popular, make complex content even harder to comprehend.

Getting readability scores

Dave Child’s free “Readability Score” tool checks the reading grade of text using five common methods, and counts your words and sentences. It gives you an average of those five scores, which in most cases is a better indicator than any single method of calculating a reading grade.

Using the readability score tool

This tool counts the number of letters in each word, and the number of words between full stops (or other sentence-ending punctuation, like question marks). It doesn’t parse text like a human does. Copy your text into the tool, then:

  • make sure there’s a full stop at the end of each heading, sub-heading, and list item
  • remove dots that the machine will wrongly see as full stops.

For example, if you’re checking this text:

You can find anything online

There’s no such thing as something you can’t find online (e.g. with Google). Seriously, there are sites for:

  • people who like to make Star Wars videos with lego men
  • fans of Irish Scottish ’80s pop sensations The Proclaimers, and
  • crazy racists looking to date other crazy racists.

You’d need to make these changes:

You can find anything online.

There’s no such thing as something you can’t find online (eg with Google). Seriously, there are sites for.

  • people who like to make Star Wars videos with lego men.
  • fans of Irish Scottish ’80s pop sensations The Proclaimers, and.
  • crazy racists looking to date other crazy racists.

This tells the grade-checking tool how people will read the text – we see headings and list items as stand-alone sentences, and we know that the dots in abbreviations aren’t full stops. It gives the tool better information to work with and usually has the happy effect of lowering the grade that the tool comes back with.

In this case the average reading grade drops by 1.2 (from 7.7 to 6.5). This can make the difference between another frustrating round of editing to get your reading grade down where it should be, and hitting “publish” and going home early.

How to lower your text’s reading grade

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This post has 578 words and an average reading grade of 7.2.

4 thoughts on “General web copy needs a reading grade of 9 or less

  1. The Proclaimers are Scottish.

    It’s a great point about reading grades though, and I’ll be looking for a way to rate content directly in the Java-based systems I develop with as a way of analysing content and helping authors.

  2. Oh, crap, you’re right. Updated – thanks for picking up my Proclaimers snafu.

    It’s a great idea to build the grading into your content system.

  3. Great idea! Let’s not lead by example. Let’s dumb down our writing to the lowest common denominator, perpetuating the myth that spelling and grammar are not important.

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