Writing clearly is an important web writing skill. Unfortunately a lot of web content is unnecessarily dense and complex, making it difficult to read. This is often the case on large sites where providing information to users appears to be the site’s main purpose.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 suggest we write content that requires reading skills no more advanced than lower secondary education level (roughly 9 years of education). This is to help people with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia. However, there is evidence that writing in a more readable style benefits everyone, including the organisation that owns the content.
Measuring reading level
Readability tests were developed to measure reading level. All use formulas based on word and sentence length, so they are not very sophisticated. Many argue they are not a meaningful way of testing readability. While you may need to do readability testing during an accessibility audit, you should understand its limitations. See ‘problems with readability scores’ below.
Two readability testing tools are built into Microsoft Word: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. You’ll need to enable them and then run the spell-checker. When the spell-checker has finished, Word shows the readability statistics.
If you don’t have Word, you’ll find a range of readability testing tools on the web. Avoid using tools that test the whole page. Including navigation and other page elements will skew the results.
To meet the accessibility guidelines, your content should have a Flesch Reading Ease score over 50, or a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level below grade 10.
Example readability test
Here’s an example, using content from the Centrelink (an Australian government agency) website.
Interpreter and translation services
To help customers understand Centrelink services, Centrelink provides interpreters at no cost to customers.
Where necessary to support a claim, Centrelink also provides a free translation service for customer documents.
Interpreters contracted by Centrelink are covered by confidentiality provisions and a Code of Ethics, which means customers can be reassured that any information learned through an interview conducted by an interpreter will remain confidential.
Bilingual staff may be available in some Centrelink Customer Service Centres to help with brief customer enquiries. If an interpreter is not immediately available, Centrelink staff may use a telephone interpreter service to assist customers.
I copied this text into Word and ran its readability tests. This showed a Flesch Reading Ease score of 16.6 (too low) and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 15.8 (too high).
Retest after removing proper nouns
The guidelines let you remove proper nouns from content before testing because it can be hard to find shorter words to replace them. So I retested the content, using ‘X’ to replace the proper nouns and titles (so I was still testing sentences of the same length). The results: a Flesch Reading Ease score of 40.6 and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 12.5. The reading level is still too high.
Rewrite with shorter words and sentences
To lower the reading level, we would need to rewrite the content using shorter words and sentences. Below is my rewritten version. It has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 58.8 and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8.3.
Free interpreter and translation services
To help you understand our services, we provide free interpreters. We can also translate your documents if you need to include them with a claim.
If our interpreters are not available we may use telephone interpreters. Some of our staff speak other languages and may also be able to help with short enquiries.
Our interpreters follow a Code of Ethics and must keep your information private.
Problems with readability scores
Readability testing is easy to do, but has significant weaknesses:
- Grade-level scores for the same text differ when using different formulas
- All words of the same length are treated equally, yet ‘agree’ is probably less difficult than ‘concur’
- Shorter words are treated as easier words, but ‘abide’ is probably more difficult than ‘tolerate’
- Shorter sentences are always considered easier to read. However, a sentence of 20 words is not necessarily easier to understand than one of 22 words
- Sentence structure and style are not considered. The use of passive voice, double negatives, nominalisations, noun strings, idioms and other writing problems are not factored into the formulas
- The length, structure and layout of the content are ignored. Long, poorly organised content with rambling paragraphs and few headings is likely to be less readable than well designed content
- The use of graphics to support or present content cannot be measured by readability formulas
- The degree of difficulty of certain concepts or topics is not given any weight
- Readers’ interest and motivation are ignored, along with their existing knowledge of the topic
- It is difficult to get meaningful results from testing tools when there is extensive use of dot points or tables, as is often the case on the web.
Use readability scores carefully
Despite these problems, some argue that readability testing helps them identify or get agreement that content needs to be rewritten or tested with users. If you use a readability testing tool, be aware of its weaknesses, and avoid rewriting content just to get a lower score. For instance, as I rewrote the Centrelink content, I aimed to:
- Avoid using difficult words (‘contracted’, ‘confidentiality’, ‘provisions’, ‘conducted’)
- Use more familiar words (‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, ‘private’ instead of ‘confidential’)
- Cut back on wordy phrasing (‘free’ instead of ‘at no cost to customers’)
- Replace some nouns with personal pronouns (‘we’, ‘our, ‘you’ instead of ‘Centrelink’ and ‘customers’).
This lowered the reading level, but hopefully it also made the content easier to read.
- Reading level: understanding success criterion 3.1.5
- Making the text easier to read: G153
- Providing a text summary that requires reading ability less advanced than the upper secondary education level: technique G86
- Providing visual illustrations, pictures, and symbols to help explain ideas, events, and processes: technique G103
- Providing a spoken version of the text: technique G79
- Providing sign language versions of information, ideas, and processes that must be understood in order to use the content: technique G160
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
More on readability and plain language
- Readability formulas
- Be cautious about using readability formulas
- The place of readability formulas in technical communication (PDF 1,000 kb)
- Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, Australia 2006
- Low literacy users: writing for a broad consumer audience
- Plain language: the bottom line
- Writing for dollars, writing to please