Posts Tagged ‘readability scores’


Sense and non-sense of readability scores

April 8, 2009

Last week, I gave a training on Effective Biomedical Writing for biomedical professionals (atypically, many PhD students attended the training). One of the items that we covered during the training is readability scores.

Something strange is happening with readability scores (RS). Most people are not even aware of the existence of this ‘mathematical tool’ used to measure the complexity of a text. But when one tells them about RS, their world changes and they think it is a fantastic tool they want to apply on their own writing. It is so strange to see that some people have enormous expectations on readability scores. In their minds, people see big applications for RS.

However, in reality, RS do not provide you with much information. RS usually take into account the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in words. This RS is then related to the number of years of education/grade levels etc. So, one can easily create a text that is complete (grammatical) non-sense but that still has a good RS.

Therefore, I merely consider RS as an early warning system. If the RS of your writing/text is bad, that is definitely a sign. RS can, in certain settings, even be used to monitor the improvement of a text. But, it does not provide any info on the complexity of the ideas, logical order of words, good vocabulary, gender/cultural/class bias, attractivity of the text or form and style.

So, there is much more to writing than a good RS. In Europe, we have a language classification system with 6 different classes (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2). Each category represents a certain reading age. The difficulty level of the text is not based on a simple formula as is the case with RS, but a large set of rules can be used to estimate the difficulty of the text.

Unfortunately, research shows that most of the communications (especially medical and governmental ones) are written at a C1-level, while only 15% of the population is capable of correctly understanding C1-level communications! Almost 85% of the population is capable of getting the message in a B1-text, but not even 15% of the communications are written at this level.

In my opinion, there still is a lot of work to close this communication gap, especially in the medical/pharmaceutical field. Knowing that communicating has never been this easy as now, having a lot of communication tools available, we need to act!