In essence, readability is simply the ease with which the text can be read. There have been a number of studies over the past hundred or so years, some academic, others pragmatic, such as those associated with the 1920’s depression adult education programme, while a few have been organised by the military.
A range of academics have developed formulae which can be applied to a text to gauge the reading level. These include Rudolf Flesch, whose formula was adapted in 1975, so becoming Flesch-Kincaid, Dale-Chall, Gunning, Fry, McLaughlin. The outcomes vary slightly, but all are a guide.
As a simple guide, National curriculum reading levels can equate to reading ages (adapt as needed to circumstance):-
For many years teachers have been aware of three levels of reading fluency: independent, instructional and frustration.
They depend on the proportion of words the child finds difficult – either not being able to read them at all or saying another word which means something different.
Child reading without adult/peer support and only experiencing difficulty with 1 word in 100 (does not know word or substitutes an inappropriate word]
Child reading with adult/peer support and experiencing difficulty with 5 words in 100.
Child experiencing difficulty with 10 words in 100. Comprehension is known to be below 50% at this undesirable level.
Teaching is sometimes based on assumption, eg, “they are year x therefore they should be able to read y”. Assumption can be a dangerous place for decisions, as the wrong assumption can create tensions in the classroom, insecurity and low level disruption, requiring intervention. Where this intervention is marginally inappropriate, linked to task completion, this can exacerbate the problem.
Teachers of subjects other than English may complain that they don’t understand such things as readability, but it is often the technical vocabulary of subjects that raise the readability level beyond comprehension. Comprehension in these subjects can be interpreted as the ability to link ideas so that the learner can “see” the abstractions through metaphor/analogy. It is in these subjects where it would appear to be even more important to check the readability of texts before use, even in on-line text.
Five finger test:-
The concept of bookmatcb is vital to efforts to teach reading and
further develop children’s reading abilities.
Children themselves can assess the degree of match between the difficulty
of a book and their reading competence by applying the Five finger test:
1 They choose a page at random.
2 They put a finger on each word that they do not know.
3 If they run out of fingers (on one hand) before the bottom of the page
then it is likely that the book is too difficult for them.
This is not an argument for “dumbing down”. Hard words are part and parcel of learning. It should be an active part of every subject teacher’s role to ensure that the essential vocabulary is explored and explained to enable learners to accommodate them and use them appropriately. It is important to avoid what is often called “barking at print”, where a child can read the words accurately, but has no clue as to the meaning.
Many of the ideas behind scaffolding theory and the zone of proximal development come from the research and concepts proposed by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist. The zone of proximal development establishes several layers of information with regard to a student. At the centre of this is the student himself or herself and the information that he or she already understands. Outside of this is the first layer, which is the information the student can learn without help; next is the layer of information a student can learn with assistance from a teacher; and beyond this is information that is too complex for the student’s current level of understanding or education.
Collaborative/paired reading can help to overcome elements of this problem, with problem words identified and discussed within the pair and then the class, perhaps leading to a personal rereading of the text before use.
Readability and font size receive much discussion on-line, especially with regard to blogging and readability. The same principle applies to digital text material, especially where the font size can be adapted to marginally lower the reading difficulty.
Paper colour background can cause issues, especially for children with dyslexia, where, for some, pastel cream or light blue will improve the readability.
Readability of texts can make or break a lesson. It is a fundamental part of the preparation of each lesson to ensure that text material is suited to the purpose. Technology allows quick and easy adjustment to text and photocopying makes multiple copies very quick to accomplish.
How-to guide. A very readable guide can be accessed through http://www.snip-newsletter.co.uk/pdfs/downloads/readability_briefing.pdf
There is an interesting discussion paper by Niace (2009) on readability which can be read at http://shop.niace.org.uk/media/catalog/product/R/e/Readability.pdf