Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

Readability for Teachers

The challenge

As a teacher or other education professional, how do you choose the right reading materials for your learners?

On the one hand, you want those you educate to feel challenged, not bored.

On the other hand, if learners are presented with texts well beyond their current reading level they are likely to struggle and make mistakes. Too many mistakes and too much struggle and they are likely to end up demotivated and disengaged.

What is the relevance of readability scores to teachers?

Readability scores can contribute to informed choices about appropriate texts. Readability-score provides grade level readability scores for a range of formula allowing you to see whether a prospective text is appropriate for your student group. You can then compare readability scores for different texts and make comparisons on their respective levels of difficulty. In this way, readability scores can be used to help you match your class reading materials to the reading level of your learners.

What’s the evidence?

The field of readability measurement came about from education nearly a century ago (for a little bit of history on how readability scoring came about see this article). In 1975, UK education policy highlighted the importance for teachers to assess the level of difficulty of books by applying measures of readability. Since then, readability scoring has been widely use to help inform selection of school reading materials. For example, a survey by the National Council of Teachers in English delivered to English teachers in a Western state in the US found that 84% of respondents identified readability level as a factor that influenced decisions about what texts were selected for English teaching.

An arena where readability scoring may be particularly useful when choosing texts for learners with disabilities. Here, extra careful judgement is required to ensure the chosen texts do not compound the challenges that the learner already faces. In particular, if the learner has been in a position before where they have been shown up in front of others for struggling with a text that was beyond their reading level. Experts on special education, Boyle and Scanlon recommend that teachers choose texts that are at the reading level for their learners and use readability formulas as a guide to selecting these.

What value can readability scores bring to the picture?

Readability scores are not meant to be prescriptive. The careful judgement of a skilled and experienced teacher is always vital for choosing appropriate texts. What readability scoring brings is another source of evidence to help inform reading material selection. Readability scores can facilitate teachers to choose texts that complement the learners reading comprehension, in turn, facilitating effective learning.

What Is Readability?

Readability: what it is and why it matters

The written word is used to communicate a whole host of ideas and information. But, what if without even being aware of it, the way you were presenting your ideas – the language you use, the length of your sentences, your use of grammar – was actually getting in the way of people engaging with your message? Readability scores are one way in which you can measure whether written information is likely to be understood by the intended reader.

What is a readability score?

A readability score is a computer-calculated index which can tell you roughly what level of education someone will need to be able to read a piece of text easily. The score itself identifies a grade level corresponding to the number of years of education a person has had.

readability of a given text can influence the extent to which people engage

A score of around 6 is the approximate reading level on completion of elementary school in the USA or primary school in the UK, going up to a score of around 10-12 on completion of high school or secondary school.

If text is too difficult or awkward to read then messages may not be engaged with or understood. However, if reading is too easy your audience might feel patronised or just plain bored. Either way the readability of a given text can influence the extent to which people engage with and take on the message of that text.

How did readability scoring come about?

The idea of readability came about in the 1920s. As the numbers of children going to secondary school was increasing, figuring out exactly what these children should be taught became a hot topic. Advice arrived in the form of Thorndike’s (1921) The Teachers’ Word Book. The book listed 10,000 words, each assigned a value based on his calculation of the breadth and frequency of use. The idea was the book could inform teachers as to which words they should be emphasising in their teaching so that those words most commonly used could be instilled in the vocabulary of their students.

the most widely used readability algorithms are Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning‑Fog

Thorndike’s book and its later variations were the catalyst for research into readability, that is, what makes text readable and how this differs by educational level. By the late 40s, measures of readability had emerged generating scores based on syllable counting and sentence length. These scores were often mapped to a grade level.

For example, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scores are (usually) between 0 and 100, with a score of 70 to 80, equivalent to 7th grade (age 12), being fairly easy to read. Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning-Fog Grade Levels provide scores directly in grades, where a score of 7-8 is ideal.

Why does readability matter?

Readability is a widely applied principle found to be valuable across a vast spectrum of professions and sectors. Here are just a few examples of why readability matters and to who.

How do teachers decide what texts are appropriate for their students?

With education is at the foundation of society the responsibility on teachers to educate effectively could not be greater. One of the many factors that bear on the success of teaching is whether instruction is pitched at an appropriate level for the learners. Too easy and they’ll be bored. Too difficult and you risk them disengaging all together. Readability scores have long been used by education professionals to help them make decisions about which books are appropriate for their students.

84% of respondents identified readability level as a factor that influenced decisions about which texts were selected

Back in 1975, the UK education policy A language for life set out that “a particularly important teaching skill is that of assessing the level of difficulty of books by applying measures of readability. The teacher who can do this is in a better position to match children to reading materials that answer their needs.” Forty years later, the use of readability scores in the choosing of set texts remains influential.

A survey was conducted by the National Council of Teachers of English in a Western state in the US. 84% of respondents identified readability level as a factor that influenced decisions about which texts were selected for English teaching. While some researchers have highlighted the limitations in the use of readability scores to choose age appropriate texts, readability provides a useful measure by which to contribute, alongside other factors, to appropriate text selection.

How can digital marketers increase the likelihood of people engaging with their brand?

“content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing”

As Neil Patel of Content Marketing Institute writes, “content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing”. While this may not be quite true – you could convey some fairly rubbish ideas in some easily readable sentences – readability scores can play a role in getting people to your site and ensuring they can easily read your content when they get there.

So, for digital marketers then, readability is a pretty important factor for success. Evidence around the readability of web content, unsurprisingly, shows massive variation between sites. For example, a study of wine websites looking at copy from 20 most popular wine brands in the US found that readability varied wildly. The researchers highlighted that wine drinking is now of interest to younger consumer groups as well as the wealthy – yep, everyone loves wine.

With this wider audience in mind, they concluded that less sophisticated consumers would not engage in messages about wine that they didn’t understand. At the same time, more sophisticated consumers would appreciate information being conveyed clearly. For both markets, paying attention to readability was seen as vital in conveying messages to consumers. After all, if people struggle to even read your content then there isn’t much hope in them actually engaging with your ideas and vision.

How can the legal profession simplify essential documents?

"Have you read the terms and conditions?" "Yes," we say, even though 99% of the time this is probably a complete lie. That said, if those terms and conditions were a matter of life and death then hopefully we’d at least take a glance. The difficulty here is that important legal documents, such as wills, are not necessarily written in a way that people can understand.

legal documents, such as wills, are not necessarily written in a way that people can understand.

A recent study investigated how people comprehend legal language in wills. It revealed that people have significant difficulty understanding the concepts described in standard, traditional wills. It also showed that in comparison to will-related documentation in its traditional format, revising the text to increase readability was seen to improve participants’ abilities to apply will-related concepts and to explain their reasoning. Providing explanation for archaic and legal terms provided a further improvement.

Given that most older adults in the US and UK have a will, the notion that the contents of these important documents, and therefore the implications of having signed one, may not have been fully understood is pretty worrying stuff.

How can governments express their plans and policies in as transparent way as possible?

what are the criteria by which we can judge whether something is written clearly and concisely?

It is the responsibility of any government to communicate their ideas and plans clearly and concisely so as to ensure transparency of their intentions to those people whose lives will be affected. However, as anyone who has ever tried to read a government policy will realise, this is not necessarily something that they are very good at. In recognition of this, there are campaigns in the UK and the US to try and give governments a hand and to promote the use of plain English in government communication. But what are the criteria by which we can judge whether something is written clearly and concisely?

You guessed it, readability scores.

For example, in the US, following the introduction of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, the efforts of government bodies to present their policies clearly is audited annually by the Center for plain English (PLAIN). A report card created for each government department and along with reader reviews, the readability score for documentation is generated feeding into grading. Readability scores then are one criterion by which governments can be held accountable in the generation of transparent policies.

How can the healthcare sector ensure patients are getting the right messages around their care and treatment?

What is lupus? How long does flu last? Is bronchitis contagious? These are a few of the popular Google health searches of 2015. Whatever the condition, type it into your browser and there is a whole treasure trove of information available.

guidance suggests writing for a level of grade 7 or 8

Aside from the enormous issues around the accuracy of medical information online, there are also big question marks around the clarity of how potentially lifesaving information is communicated. Readability scores have been used by researchers to assess the readability of health related communications available on the internet and the results are not very encouraging. For example, a study looking at gastric cancer related information on the web, 51 websites were evaluated found average readability to be at a grade level of 10.4. Given that US National Library of Medicine guidance on writing health material for the public suggests writing for a level of grade 7 or 8, this health related information seemed rather poorly pitched.

The same pattern was found in a study assessing the readability of health information presented by organisations representing the top 5 medical-related cause of death in the US including diabetes and stroke. Again, readability scores were well about the recommended grade 7 or 8. Given the potential seriousness of misunderstanding health related information, the need for health related communications to be pitched appropriately for the reading levels of the general public should not be underestimated.

So what is the potential?

Readability scores don’t just point out problems, they provide a tool by which to address them. Readability measures help highlight issues in readability of health related information. They help communicators ensure patients can understand the important health messages being conveyed in information leaflets. They help to point out weaknesses in government communications, by giving policy writers advice on the readability level they should aim for. And when writing for the general public, readability scoring provides a gauge by which writers can improve the quality of their writing.

Unusual Nomenclature in Four US Regions

The English language is known for some interesting twists and turns, a tradition that continues with the naming of US towns. The reasoning behind some of the more unusual names is often as obscure as English word origins, but it does make travel through the US interesting.

1. If you're traveling below the Mason Dixon line, take note of town names like Jot 'Em Down or Climax, Georgia. There's no affiliation between Climax and Intercourse in Sumter County, a historic area producing wheat, peanuts, and cotton. It sports a decent population of around thirty thousand, in direct contrast with...

2. Nothing, Arizona. The American West is known for its big, empty spaces, but it's the little things that count - or don't, depending on how you reason. Nothing, Arizona is a literal wide spot in the road twenty miles south of the "Rattlesnake Capital of Arizona." It's been abandoned because its tiny industries have come to, you guessed it, nothing. No surprise there. However, Surprise, Arizona sports a population of over 100,000 and is in close proximity to Luke Air Force Base. Clearly, there's nothing small or inconspicuous about Surprise, yet travelers find its name a little - surprising.

3. If you're traveling in the Midwest, check out Devil's Elbow, Missouri, named after a tricky bend in the Big Piney River. It rests on historic Route 66, but visitors may be disappointed if they're interested in visiting the site of the not-so-famous Devil's Elbow Cafe. The area is currently being rebuilt after flooding in 2017.

4. New England is a beautiful locale that is clearly hiding some real gems, like Satan's Kingdom, an unincorporated area in Northfield, Massachusetts. How the area came to be called Satan's Kingdom isn't clear, but at least one YouTuber believes the name developed out of nicknaming to warn people of poisonous snakes and other dangers in the wooded area. Got it - be wary of Satan's Kingdom.

Road tripping around the US offers valuable experiences. Don't forget opportunities for selfies with some odd and entertaining road signs!

Verbs of Perambulation

It's not just about getting somewhere, it's sometimes about how you got there. Here are some alternatives, when walking just won't do.


  • amble


  • bolt
  • boogie
  • bounce
  • bumble


  • canter
  • chacha
  • crawl
  • creep


  • dash
  • dawdle
  • drag


  • enter
  • exit


  • flee
  • flit
  • fly
  • foxtrot


  • gallop
  • gambol
  • glide


  • hobble
  • hop
  • hurry
  • hustle


  • inch


  • jitterbug
  • jive
  • jog
  • jump


  • kick


  • lag
  • leap
  • limp
  • lurch


  • march
  • meander
  • mince


  • nip


  • pace
  • parade
  • pirouette
  • prance


  • quickmarch
  • quickstep


  • rhumba
  • romp
  • run


  • sail
  • samba
  • sashay
  • scram
  • shuffle
  • sidle
  • skedaddle
  • skip
  • slide
  • stagger
  • step
  • stomp
  • stride
  • stumble
  • swim


  • tango
  • tiptoe
  • totter
  • traipse
  • tramp
  • trot
  • trudge


  • undulate


  • waddle
  • wade
  • walk
  • waltz
  • wend
  • wobble


  • yawl


  • zip
  • zoom

They're, Their and There

Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, even local and national news articles - mistakes are everywhere. When you come to misuse of these three simple words, don't you want to scream? For many readers, incorrect choice of these everyday words causes writers to immediately lose a sense of legitimacy with their readers, no matter how important the message may be.

"They're" means "they are." Period. It is a contraction.

Example: They're not going to want to hear this, but choosing the right words matter.

Ask yourself, can I use the words "they are" to replace the contraction? If not, move on to another option.

"Their" is a possessive pronoun. It comes from the word they. It always shows ownership of a noun.

Example: Writers must choose their words carefully when sharing their ideas.

Ask yourself, do I mean to show possession? If not, and the word is also not meant to mean "they are," you most likely need to use the third choice.

"There" is a place, point, or interjection. If you do not intend to say "they are" or show possession, this is the word to go to.


Please put the newspaper over there.

There was nothing left to do after the deadline passed.

There, I told you she could complete the assignment!

So please. For grammar lovers and readers everywhere, know the difference.

Who knows when to use "whom"?

"Who" has something in common with Latin and German nouns. They all change form depending on their function in a sentence just like verbs change form depending on their tense. This system of changing nouns is called a case system.

Like Latin, German, and many other languages, Old English had a case system. Modern English still has a few words that change their form, but won't change their ways: "who" and "whom."

Because this form change is unusual in modern English, many speakers don't know when to use "who" and when to use "whom." Don't worry, we're here to help!

Put technically, use "who" as the subject of a verb. Use "whom" as the verb's object.

Put simply, compare "who" and "whom" to a more familiar pronoun.

who = he

whom = him

When in doubt about whether to use "who" or 'whom," ask a question, and answer it with "he" or "him." Now, who wants some examples? We bet he wants some examples.

"Who threw that squirrel?" "Who" is the subject of the verb, and "He threw that squirrel" sounds better than "Him threw that squirrel." If we were being honest, however, it was us. We threw that squirrel.

"At whom did we throw that squirrel?" "Whom" is the verb's object, so we'll confess by saying we threw that squirrel at him. We most certainly did not throw that squirrel at he. That would be wrong.

People rarely confuse "he" and "him." With a little practice, "who" and "whom" will be just as easy to use.

Verbs of Vocalization

Sometimes "said" just isn't good enough. Here's a great big set of alternatives!


  • affirm
  • answer
  • articulate
  • ask


  • banter
  • bark
  • bellow
  • bray


  • cackle
  • call
  • chatter
  • chirp
  • chitter
  • chortle
  • croon
  • cry


  • declaim
  • declare
  • drawl


  • elocute
  • elucidate
  • enunciate
  • exclaim
  • explain
  • explicate


  • fume
  • fuss


  • gargle
  • gossip
  • growl
  • grumble
  • grunt
  • guffaw
  • gurgle


  • harrumph
  • hiss
  • howl
  • huff


  • inquire
  • insinuate
  • insist
  • interject
  • interrupt


  • jeer
  • jest
  • joke


  • kibbitz
  • klatsch


  • laugh
  • lisp


  • mew
  • mumble
  • murmur
  • mutter


  • natter
  • note


  • offer
  • opine


  • plead
  • prod
  • purr


  • query
  • question
  • quibble
  • quip


  • rant
  • reply
  • respond
  • roar
  • rumble


  • say
  • scream
  • shout
  • snap
  • snicker
  • snigger
  • snort
  • speak
  • stammer
  • stutter
  • swear


  • talk
  • tell
  • titter
  • twitter


  • utter


  • verbalize
  • vocalize
  • voice


  • wail
  • warble
  • whisper
  • whistle


  • yammer
  • yell
  • yodel
  • yowl
  • yuk

How To Use A Colon

Sometimes punctuation is tricky! Some have dots, some have dots with a tail coming out of them, and some have both. When they look similar, how can we tell them apart and use them in the right instance? One of the hardest punctuation mark to get straight is the colon, especially when our gut instinct tells us to use a comma.


1. When a clause in a sentence gives a more specific explanation of the previous clause as long as it follows an independent clause.

       A. Here's an example done correctly: She liked her hair styled a particular way: pulled back in a ponytail with her bangs swooped to the side.

       B. Here's an example of this done incorrectly: She liked her hair style like: pulled back in a ponytail with her bangs swooped to the side.

2. When introducing a list as long as it follows an independent clause.

       A. Here's an example of this done correctly: After evaluating her cart, Tamara checked off the items she'd gotten from her shopping list: cinnamon, bagels, and laundry detergent.

       B. Here's an example of this done incorrectly: After evaluating her cart, Tamara checked off: cinnamon, bagels, and laundry detergent from her list.

3. When presenting a quotation as long as it follows an independent clause.

       A. Here's an example of this done correctly: Victims of mental health issues are more likely to develop physical health problems as well, and Dr. Robert Conrad agrees: "Depression can lower the immune system, making these individuals more susceptible to illnesses and common colds."

       B. Here's an example of this done incorrectly: Victims of mental health issues are more likely to develop physical health problems as well, and Dr. Robert Conrad agrees that: "Depression can lower the immune system, making these individuals more susceptible to illnesses and common colds."

In bold, it's noted that in all of these circumstances, the colon must follow an independent clause, meaning that what's before the colon can stand completely on its own and still make sense. The two examples for the last rule seem similar, but including "that" directly before the colon makes it incorrect; "Dr. Robert Conrad agrees that" is not an independent clause. That rule is true for most text: sentences and paragraphs that flow together. However, one could also use a colon at the end of a heading or subheading.

Hopefully, these tips and examples help you decide if a colon is the right form of punctuation for you to use! Happy writing!

Writing Scientific English

Writing is usually an exercise in maintaining clarity. Often being concise or brief is extolled. This is not the case with Scientific English. Newcomers to the field often don't comprehend that the objectives of writing good Scientific English have little to do with communication. Let's look at common reasons for writing Scientific English.

  1. To be published without embarrassing questions on the content of the article
  2. Because the boss wants his name on a paper
  3. To get a raise
  4. As an ego boost (see to be published)
  5. To keep others scientists, reporters, the general public outside the field
  6. To further Science (I put it in to be fair)

An Excellent Example of How Scientific English Can Be Used to Confound and Bewilder

Read the paragraph below and render this into common English:

In the course of a 24 hour period it often behoves one to locomote in three dimensional space where it is not proscribed but is on limited access. These aforementioned regions are wontedly circumscribed by devices that inherently consist of either processed plant matter, modified petrochemicals, any of a large class of materials with highly variable mechanical and optical properties that solidify from the molten state without crystallization , are typically made by silicates fusing with boric oxide, aluminium oxide, or phosphorus pentoxide, or various metals. The form or accepted mode verges on a one meter span, a two meter elevation and a profundity that is exceedingly variable but usually is limited to 3 to 6 centimetres. It has been said that * use of these contrivances is fundamentally rudimental with no or non complexity the norm. With an extension either of the prehensile appendages that are attached to one's torso one simply seizes the protuberance that extends for the surface of these devices and rotate the aforementioned protrusion either clockwise or anti-clockwise then one either thrusts forward or draws toward oneself the device and therefore initiating the breach which allows one to continue to perambulate.

(* Notice the use of passive voice. This allows the researcher to avoid making a statement that could be attributed to his or her self thus evading any blame later. In this instance the reader does not ask the question who said, he or she assumes that large numbers of scientists did because the passive voice was used. A consensus is implied. Use of the passive voice was severely restricted in this example of Scientific English. Normally 80% of all Scientific papers are in passive voice.)

The Explanation

The instructions are nothing more than how to use a door with a doorknob. During the day you often have to open doors. But it is written in mumbo jumbo so it takes quite a lot of guessing to understand. The plain version reads as:

Stick your hand out. Turn the knob clockwise or anticlockwise. Push or pull.

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