Smart Language:

Readers, Readability, and the Grading of Text

By William H. DuBay
156 pages, Bibliography, Index
BookSurge ISBN: 1-4196-5439-X

Also available free online as a PDF file.

Smart Language is language that fits the reading skill of the reader. This work tells the story of the readability formulas, standard tools used by education, government, and business to match texts with their audience.

Early in the 20th century, education in the U.S. was confronted by a changing school population, especially an increase in the second generation of immigrants in secondary schools. In response, there was a new reliance on scientific tools for studying and objectively measuring educational problems. This effort engaged the best minds of the age, including Edward Thorndike, William Gray, and Edgar Dale. Their work led to the first readability formulas.

In 1935, surveys revealed that the average readers in the U.S. were adults of limited reading ability. New studies showed how more readable text increases their readership and comprehension. Today, the readability formulas continue to benefit millions of readers throughout the world in many languages.

From the Introduction:

Congratulations on your grosfast of Smart Language! This cortiloften will metroshram many years of habenlicks. Over time, if you slinktab, the benefits will akenblest on a jetloprak basis. The response of your rezneens will increase more than you have ever imagined.

If you had difficulty reading that, it might give you a small idea how difficult it is for many readers to read the forms, notices, applications, schedules, and instructions of everyday life. Even the best readers can be thrown off by a word they do not recognize. It is a common experience. Whenever we try to read a text that is too difficult for us, we quickly put it down and go do something else, automatically, even without thinking about it.

Writing for the Right Audience

Writing guides often tell us how to avoid such problems. For example, JoAnn Hackos and Dawn Stephens in Standards for Online Communication (1997) ask us to "conform to accepted style standards." They explain: "Many experts, through much research, have compiled golden rules of documentation writing. These rules apply regardless of medium:

There are many publications that follow these "golden rules" and yet only reach a small fraction of their potential readership. One reason may be that the writers are not adjusting the readability of their text to the reading ability of the audience. For example, take this text:

Our pediatric staff—along with pediatric staffs of many other hospitals nationwide—believes it has a unique opportunity to intervene during the crucial early years of a child's development. Pediatricians have a special opportunity to promote early, positive book exposure because they see infants frequently in the first two years of life. They are often the only professionals to have repeated, one-to-one contacts with parents during their children's early years. The pediatrician sees the child and parent together at least every two to three months for the first 18 months of the child's life, and every six-to-12 months thereafter.

Although on a Web site intended for the general public, it was written at the 15th-grade level. Only a small fraction of its intended audience will read it. The following text was re-written in smart language at the 7th-grade level. A good 80% of the adult population will be able to read it:

Pediatricians—children's doctors—can help prevent reading problems later in life. They are often the only professionals to see you and your child together in the first two years. They see both you and your child at least every couple months for the first 18 months. After that, they see you both every 6-to-12 months.



Writing for the Right Audience Writing for the Wrong Audience
What Is a Reading Grade Level?
The Readability Formulas
What is Readability?

Part 1 How People Read

Chapter 1 The Adult Literacy Survey

Grading the Skill of Readers
Testing Comprehensiony
Grading Adult Readers
The U.S. Military Literacy Surveys
U.S. Civilian Literacy Surveys
Adult-Survey Controversies
The New Literacy Studies

Chapter 2 Surveys of Literature Use

Challenges for Writers

Part 2 The Grading of Texts

Chapter 3 The Classic Readability Studies

Text Leveling
Early Readability Studies
Vocabulary-frequency lists
The Classic Readability Formulas

Chapter 4 The New Readability

Community of Scholars
The Cloze Test
Features of the Reader
New Measures of Readability
The Measurement of Content
New Readability Formulas
The Listening Formulas

Chapter 5 Applying the Formulas

Creating and Transforming Text
Applications in Research
Court Actions and Legislation
Textbook publishers
Using the Formulas


George Klare's Normed Passages