Tool 15: Checking Reading and Vocabulary Levels

By the time you sit down to write the manuscript, the video script or the Web content for your MSUE curriculum, you will have identified your audience. You’ll know whether you’re writing for professional or paraprofessional staff, for adult program participants, for adult or teen volunteers or parents, or for young people in a specific age or grade range. No matter who your audience is, it’s critical to consider their literacy levels as you move ahead.

  • If you’re writing for children or teens, you’ll need to write simply, and tailor the reading level to your intended audience. Researchers have developed a number of formulas for measuring the reading level of a manuscript. Two of the best known are the Flesch Readability Formula and the Gunning Fog Index. You use both formulas by picking fairly representative 100-word samples of the manuscript. Count the number of sentences and syllables in the sample, then apply the formulas to arrive at a reading ease or reading level score. The editor you work with on your curriculum project will help you measure reading levels. (Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect also offer tools that will give you a rough idea of your manuscript’s reading level.)
  • If you’re writing for adults, the sky’s the limit, right? Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. Our adult audiences have a range of literacy levels, too, from very low to graduate school-level. The rule of thumb for MSUE educational materials is that even for adults, we write for no higher than an eighth-grade reading level. Sixth- or seventh-grade is probably better. Again, you can use the readability formulas to help you gauge the level of your writing.
  • Keep in mind that reading level formulas are useful, but they’re not foolproof. If you write solely to reach a low reading level score, your sentences will be short and choppy. You have to balance what the formulas say about the reading level of your manuscript with what you know about your audience and your subject matter. Introducing long words and complicated concepts may be okay if you do it carefully. Define new terms as you introduce them, then expand on the definitions in a glossary.

"Reading level formulas are useful, but they’re not foolproof."

Last Updated: July 29, 2009; Last Reviewed: April, 2009
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