In a recent article, the Los Angeles Times reported on a survey that found that the level of sophistication in oratory in the US Congress has declined. That conclusion reminds me of a reading-comprehension tool I came across when I was a schoolteacher — a system that might provide you with some insight about your writing.
The report concluded that the average level of discourse in the Senate and the House of Representatives is equivalent to that of high school sophomores — comprehension, that is, not usage. (That outcome would be more terrifying than intriguing.) But that speechifying score is still slightly above average — at least, above the average reading comprehension of American adults, who read at a ninth-grade level.
Does that mean that speeches and written content should strive to be comprehensible to ninth graders? That depends. If you’re writing fitness tips for a health insurance company’s newsletter, or instructions for an election ballot, or a customer service brochure, think “high school freshman.” (Again, in terms of reading level, not usage.)
But for many writers, the target audience is not necessarily the average American; we write for a readership that has achieved higher levels of education. In the purest sense of artistic expression, writers should communicate at the level they are most comfortable with, and hope that they will find an audience. Realistically, however, especially when once audience is one’s clientele or constituency (or that of the business, organization, or government agency one works for), one must be sensitive to the recipient.
One of the most popular forms of readership-level evaluation is the Flesch-Kinkaid system (developed in the mid-twentieth century for use by the US military and later appropriated to guide drafting of government documents and evaluate student comprehension), which consists of two distinct scales of reading difficulty:
The Flesch-Kinkaid Reading Ease continuum is a scale of 0-100 in which the lower the score, the more sophisticated the language; mostly monosyllabic comic books and dense legalese anchor opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Flesch-Kinkaid Reading Level is the more deceptively simple index: It reflects the grade level the reader must ostensibly have reached to be able to comprehend the material, from 0 (kindergarten) and beyond 12 (high school senior year) to undergraduate and graduate college levels. (I write “deceptive” because of course a high school freshman, for example, won’t necessarily read at a ninth-grade level. But that’s a topic for another post.)
If you’re interested in determining the Flesch-Kinkaid scores for your own writing, use this online readability-index calculator, which determined, by the way, that both scores for this post are, coincidentally, 17. (That Reading Level score indicates that I’m targeting readers who have attained at least five years of college education, and the Reading Ease mark is inching down into rarified territory. But I’m not concerned, because I know my readership consists of people decidedly above average in reading comprehension.)
Don’t be shocked if scores for your own writing indicate that it is astronomically abstruse or sophomorically simplistic; plug in more than one writing sample. For example, my recent post Do You Look Like a Writer?, which I selected for contrast because it is more conversational than this article, scored a much more accessible 46 on the F-K Reading Ease scale and a more modest 11 on the F-K Grade Level. Wildly fluctuating scores on various written materials is a reassuring sign of a writer’s flexibility. (That’s my spin, at least.)
I’ve strayed from my introductory topic, especially because, as I’ve pointed out often on this site, spoken and written English are two separate “dialects” of our language. But that doesn’t mean they are mutually exclusive: Writers should always consider the power of conversational composition, and orators should strive to emulate the discipline of the written word. And scribes and speakers alike can use the Flesch-Kinkaid indicators as a starting point to reflect on the impact of their voice on their audiences.