Even writing for university students and teachers, readability is important. It’s also an important skill to master (and then be able to teach). For instance, teachers on any level need to be able to create learning materials that are easy to understand.
But writing academic texts with a good Flesch score isn’t easy.
As a test case, I took the brief description of the #TCDTE project:
“The project investigates teachers’ use and concepts of digital tools in education. The sample comprises pre-service teachers as well as in-service teachers with varying degrees of teaching experience.
Pilot studies with pre- and in-service history teachers were conducted in Germany’s Ruhr area (2011/2012) and in Basel (2016/2017) by Prof. Dr. Marko Demantowsky.
In the current phase, I’m working with Prof. Dr. Marko Demantowsky to re-analyze the existing data and further develop the assessment instrument.
In 2017/ 2018, we implemented a geography/ social studies (RZG) part. Moreover, Robin Schmidt created and implemented an adapted version for Waldorf teachers.
In 2018/ 2019, it is planned to extend the questionnaire to include philosophy and ethics-religions-community (ERG). For that, we collaborate with Stefano Franceschini.”
According to a Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX the Flesch Reading Ease score is 49.7 and the Kincaid Grade Level 8.8.
Idea 1: Keep the sentence short
Colmer1 argues that due to the way the formulas work, “simply shortening the length of your sentences will lead to the most impressive effect on the readability score.”
But what is a good length? Gov.uk2 summarizes research that shows 11-14 words per sentence is easy. They recommend 25 as a maximum.
According to the Readability Test Tool, in the original version there were on average 10.36 words per sentence. So, not bad.
Still, 3 sentences were longer than 14 words.
“The project investigates teachers’ use and concepts of digital tools in education. We study both pre- and in-service teachers.
Marko Demantowsky conducted pilot studies in 2011/2012 (Germany) and 2016/2017 (Switzerland). The pilot studies were done with history teachers and teacher students.
I joined the project in 2017. We further developed the questionnaire. It now includes also a geography/ RZG part. RZG is short for the subject spaces-times-societies. In 2017/2018, we conducted 3 pilot studies in Switzerland.
Moreover, Robin Schmidt made an adapted version for Waldorf teachers.
We also re-analyze the existing data.
In 2018/2019, the questionnaire will be extended with a part for philosophy and ERG teachers. ERG is short for the subject ethics-religions-community. For that, we collaborate with Stefano Franceschini.”
Now on average there are only 9.07 words per sentence. The grade level improved to 7.8 and the reading ease to 55.1.
Hmmm, still not in the 60-70 range that’s recommended3. Moreover, what I noticed when working on the sample above is that because it’s a short text, even small changes can swing the score up or down quite a lot.
Idea 2: Keep the word short
Colmer1 also argues that word length/ how many syllables there are is important due to the way the formulas work.
The revised version above has an average syllable of 1.66 and 19.08% of complex words. The Readability Test Tool says that complex words are those with 3 or more syllables.
There’s a difficult word finder. It shows rare words. In the case of the text above, besides the names the finder shows questionnaire and collaborate as rare words. Collaborate can be replaced by ‘work with’. Questionnaire could be replaced by ‘survey’, but that’s a more general term.
The difficult word finder also shows long words. Again, some of them are names or words that are part of the subject (e.g. philosophy) and so can’t be changed. Some of the remaining ones can be changed quite easily (e.g. investigates can become studies or explores), others can’t be replaced at all (e.g. education is a key word). A helpful tool for thinking about whether an alternative can be used is an online thesaurus.
The rewritten text:
“The project explores teachers’ use and concepts of digital tools in education. We study both pre- and in-service teachers.
Marko Demantowsky did pilot studies with history teachers and teacher students. They took place in 2011/2012 (Germany) and 2016/2017 (Switzerland).
I joined the project in 2017. We further developed the questionnaire. It now includes also a geography/ RZG part. RZG is short for the subject spaces-times-societies. In 2017/2018, we did 3 pilot studies in Switzerland.
We also re-analyze the data from the earlier studies.
Besides, Robin Schmidt made an altered version for Waldorf teachers.
In 2018/2019, the survey will be extended with a part for philosophy and ERG teachers. ERG is short for the subject ethics-religions-community. For that, we work with Stefano Franceschini.”
This puts the reading ease score at 64 and the grade level at 6.6.
On the one hand, this shows the limitations of the scores. For instance, does a 6 or 7 grader really know what a pilot study is?
On the other hand, this little experiment shows that readability can be improved. It requires a mind-shift from the way many have been trained to write academic texts. For instance, academic writers have to think about which complex words are essential, and which they can replace with easier ones.
1 Colmer, Ruth (2018): 5 steps to improving readability. https://readable.io/blog/5-steps-to-improving-readability/
2 Gov.uk (2014). Sentence length: why 25 words is our limit. https://insidegovuk.blog.gov.uk/2014/08/04/sentence-length-why-25-words-is-our-limit/