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English Composition 1

The Reading Level of Your Writing

The word-processing program Microsoft Word includes a tool that provides information about the reading level of your writing.

What is the Reading Level?

The "reading level," measured in terms of school grade levels, indicates the minimum education level that someone would need in order to read and comprehend a piece of writing. For example, if the reading level of an essay is an 8, this means that someone with an eighth-grade education should have no significant problem reading and understanding the essay.  

How is the Reading Level Determined?

Microsoft Word measures the readability of a writing sample using something referred to as the "Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level." To determine the reading level, Word counts the number of letters in words and the number of words in sentences, so the reading level is determined by the lengths of words and the lengths of sentences. The shorter the words and sentences, the lower the reading level. The use of longer words and longer sentences raises the reading level.

It is important to realize that Word does not measure how well the words are used or how well the sentences are written. It cannot tell what you are saying. It only counts.

This fact limits the usefulness of the readability information, but the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level measurement is one tool that can help writers strengthen their writing. For example, a low reading level probably means that the writer uses a lot of short sentences. 

Viewing Readability Statistics in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word Options Box

To view the reading level of an essay in Word, you need to make a change in the Word "Options" area.

To set Word to provide readability statistics,

  1. Open Word
  2. In Word 2010, pull down the "File" menu (in Word 2007, click the Windows icon in the upper left)
  3. Click "Options" (near the bottom of the menu)

You will then see the "Options" box (illustrated below).

  1. Click the "Proofing" tab
  2. Click to put a check mark next to "Show readability statistics," which is located near the bottom of the "Proofing" box
  3. Click "Ok"

Word should now be set to give you the readability information for your document. Word gives this information after you have spell checked the document, so you can see the readability statistics by using the spell checker (pressing [F7] is the keyboard shortcut for running the spelling and grammar checker).

After Word has spell checked and grammar checked your document, a box will pop up showing the readability statistics, as illustrated on the left.

As you can see from the image on the left, Word gives 9.6 as the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the document (the document used here is the sample final draft of an essay on Migrant Mother). This means that the essay should be able to be read and understood by people who have at least a ninth-grade education. 

The box on the left tells us the average number of sentences per paragraph (8.8), the average number of words per sentence (20.7), and the average number of characters per word (4.5).

Word also gives 7 as the number of paragraphs even though the essay (linked above) clearly only has five paragraphs. This is because Word considers that a new paragraph begins every time the writer presses [Enter], so the number of paragraphs indicated in the reading statistics might be different from the actual number of paragraphs in the document.

Notice that the readability statistics also include the percentage of passive sentences in the document. A sentence written in the active voice follows the pattern of "Someone did something" whereas a sentence in the passive voice follows the pattern of "Something was done by someone." In general, the fewer the number of passive sentences, the better.  



What is a Good Readability Grade Level?

That is a good question.

It is important to realize that we are referring to the "readability" level of your document, not to the grade level of your writing. In other words, if you have a readability grade level of 7 for one of your essays, this does not mean that you are writing at the skill level of a seventh grader. It instead means that someone in the seventh grade (and higher) should be able to read your essay and understand it. 

You might be surprised to know that many newspapers are written to be understood by people with an eighth-grade education or higher, meaning that many newspapers would probably have a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of about 8.

If your essay has a readability grade level of 6 or 7 (or below), it would probably be a good idea to try to raise the reading level. Such a score is probably an indication of the use of many short words and short sentences.

Most students in first-year English composition college courses probably are writing at a readability grade level of 8 or 9. Students in such courses occasionally are able to write essays with a readability level of 12, but this is rare. Those students generally have reached quite a sophisticated level of writing ability.

It is also important to note that the reading grade level of an essay might be high if there are run-on sentences or comma splices in the essay. These serious grammatical errors occur when two or more sentences are incorrectly written as just one sentence. Word might mistakenly interpret the long sentences without taking into account that the sentences appear long because they include major grammatical errors. 

While the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is limited in what it can tell us about a piece of writing (remember that Word is only doing some counting to come up with the grade level), it is also true that, in general, the higher the grade level, the more developed the writing skills.  

How to Raise the Readability Grade Level

Remember that the readability grade level is based on the lengths of words and the lengths of sentences.

One good way to raise the readability level of an essay is by combining some of the short sentences into longer and more complex sentences, especially if you reread the essay and notice that you are using many short sentences. There are simple ways to combine sentences, including bringing two sentences together with a coordinating conjunction, such as "and," "but," and "or," and by joining sentences with a subordinating conjunction, such as "because," "although," and "while." The Web page Sentences: Simple, Compound, and Complex presents information that may be helpful.

The lengths of words is a more complicated issue. A low number for the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level could indicate heavy use of short words, but it would not be good advice simply to say, "use bigger words." However, it seems that a piece of writing with many short words could be an indication of the writer's limited vocabulary. The use of a thesaurus could be helpful in expanding the variety of words in an essay, but be careful if you do use a thesaurus. A thesaurus often is misused. It should be used to help you find better words, not just longer words.          

After you have combined some sentences and have tried to strengthen the word choice in an essay, try running the readability statistics tool again. You might be surprised. Sometimes just a few changes can help you raise the readability level of an essay.

This page was last updated on July 26, 2013. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2012.