One of the more crucial requirements of an effective language lesson or program is for the learner to receive “comprehensible input.”
Programs must provide, not only, rich exposure to language, but they must make sure that learners can comprehend the majority of the language they are exposed to.
There are many ways of accomplishing this, but one of the easiest is to make sure that texts are at a comfortable readability level so that students can understand the majority of what they read.
Readability and comprehensibility are complex topics that raise many interesting research questions, such as
- How much of a text must be comprehensible for it to be “readable”?
- What grammatical elements influence “readability”?
- How much of the vocabulary of a text needs to be comprehended in order to make a text “readable”?
and many others.
These are all great topics for research articles and dissertations, but meanwhile teachers need to choose texts and some teachers may even want to learn to create their own comprehensible materials. In today’s world of independent publishing, such texts may even be marketable.
One way of testing readability that many students and teachers with be familiar with is Microsoft Word’s readability feature. This can be adequate for a quick check, as long as the language you are testing is good to begin with and as long as you recognize what the numbers mean. But it may not be the best tool for users of English as an international language. There are two issues here: the way the number is calculated and the scale used to report it.
Microsoft Word uses Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. The first number gives a relative readability as a percentage (higher being easier). The second gives a level related to grade level (lower being easier). Both are calculated based on length of words, sentences, and paragraphs. The idea is that longer words, sentences, and paragraphs are more difficult to read. However, this means that this paragraph you are reading right now has exactly the same readability scores as this one:
Clearly the manner of calculation raises issues for this tool, but the scale used also may be problematic for international audiences. The Flesch-Kincaid gives a score based on a U.S. grade level where the assumption is students who use English as a primary language in a primarily monolingual culture – a measurement which obviously has limited relevance for an international audience learning English as a secondary language.
This online readability test uses the same problematic factors for calculation but has a slight advantage in that it offers alternative scales, including the Gunning-Fog. The Gunning-Fog Score is based on number of years of formal schooling needed to comfortably read a text International audiences might find it helpful to interpret this to mean “number of years of English language study”. This Gunning-Fog calculator displays the text in a way that may be helpful to some writers in revising; it shows where the “harder” words are. Readability scores may not say much about the actual language but they can be helpful to compare one well-written passage to another, they can open up research possibilities, and they are fun to play with.