Thinking about readability trumps football

Even a close game like The Iron Bowl couldn’t divert me (for long) from thinking about readability today (and this is a banner year for me: an alum of TCU and Boise State, and teaching in the Auburn Univ. system).  I should be more involved with college football, at least, but there it is: I seem to be only on the fringe these days. For this very moment, text is vastly more entertaining. (I have to admit, though, there are moments when a stunning fade will capture me entirely, and if a receiver catches it in his fingertips then drives into turbo, way way WAY past the defense, for a game-saving TD–that is diverting.)

Readability. Sometimes you just can’t shake something from the back burner. Today it’s front and center. Why? No idea. Fate? The timing is right? Did I read something recently that was so hard, I abandoned it (Thomas Pynchon, no doubt)? Not sure.  I do know readability is relevant to me right now because information design matters to me at this point in my life. I’m trying to work out several kinds of knowledge I possess and how to share that information to maximum effect. My current tools are inadequate. I want pretty charts; moving charts, literally and metaphorically. I want data that is beautiful, that is art, that is readable. Of course, that all leads me back to the text that I want to be part of the information design, and this all leads me to what I spend a lot of time thinking about: college writing instruction.


Do folks in college writing studies do much with readability measurement? It certainly changed textual production in the 20th century, but do we pay enough attention to it in college classes, especially in college writing classes? I don’t know, but it’s on my list of things to dig into when I feel like digging into a database, because readability matters in college, for sure to beginning college writers, and by extension, their teachers.

I certainly haven’t paid much attention to readability since I got back to teaching college writing in 2007. I have assumed three things as a college writing teacher: 1) if I have interest in a text, then I can teach it; 2) if I can convince students of the rightness of reading a text, they will do it; 3) college textbook producers know what they are doing. But I’m wrong. Here’s why: 1) just because I care, doesn’t mean anyone else will–a few will (my devoted Star Trek writing students); 2) even at my most persuasive, a text can baffle, even proficient readers; and 3) maybe college textbook producers don’t care about readability. This certainly explains my experience in micro and macro economics. I considered myself more than a proficient reader, but I couldn’t “get” it by reading the $120 book. This is something I hear from students a lot: “I read it, but I don’t get it.” And really, if you picked up a college text and tried to plow through, you might only get a portion of it or not get it at all. Some of the college texts I’ve read (I use the term “read” loosely here) are often written for a specific discourse community with specialized vocabulary and conventions that are alien to a reader’s experiences. How does a disinterested reader get over that? How does a semi-interested reader get over that?

The answer is complicated. Some students are not able to get over the disconnect between what they can read independently and what they might need serious instruction to understand–especially when a teacher assumes the text IS the instruction. Related to retention? Oh. My. Word.

Many college teachers I know complain that students “don’t read” anymore. Did they ever? Did any students ever power through the boredom of incomprehensible text? I certainly didn’t as a freshman. I read what I wanted to–some of it sophisticated, some of it fun, some of it mildly difficult, but I only read what I wanted to read, easy or hard, and never to learn how to do anything in my college classes. I was such a brat. (In my defense, I think the economics textbook was truly awful–not one bit of humor nor an engaging voice–yuck.) Furthermore, moveover, and get this: I never read a syllabus until I wrote one. I really need to think about that statement in a quiet moment.

John Trimbur writes about the ethics of boredom in his text, The Call to Write. I have used this text to teach many times, and I like this part about reading and boredom. It’s something like this: saying you’re bored with a text doesn’t necessarily mean it’s boring; you might not be ready to read the text. You might need to work harder and better in order to comprehend–multiple readings, with vocabulary instruction, group discussion, outlines, and additional reading. Ah. I wish I’d known about how to name what I said a billion times as a freshman. I’m not sure it would have changed my path much. Going to college right next to the beach was hard get past and made it nearly impossible for me to study most of the time–oh, and did I mention the bar on campus next to the pool perched on the cliff with ocean views? No carding. So there was really no hope for me back then, but understanding textual “boredom” might have helped me more appropriately teach writing to the struggling students I encountered early in my career, or rather, tried to teach. (Perhaps I have the wording all wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching them, but inviting them to learn.)

Regardless of what I call what I do in the classroom–teaching, or an invitation to learn, or modeling life-long learning–it’s often all about the penetrability of the text. Can students get into a text or can’t they? Knowing something about the text and its readability could help me. It was only in K-12 curriculum development that I learned about readability when I created and selected text for striving readers and writers. AND because I tend to connect information well after I acquire it to weave new knowledge for myself, I am only today getting around to this thinking, the connections, and these questions.

So… why wouldn’t this readability jazz help me talk about text with my students–emergent and proficient and all in between? It could give me a heads-up about how I could introduce a text, anticipate when students might need more information or context, or when I should use a text multiple times to ensure its status as a touchstone text–a mentor text. Also, because I am a writing program administrator, I have to think about professional development all the time. Could I help the composition teachers in my program if they could calculate readability levels and use this information to support teaching, high school dual enrollment, basic college classes, freshman composition, and junior-level professional writing classes?

I decided to try an experiment today during The Iron Bowl (and it’s lasted through the Oregon/Arizona game).  I took text from five chapters in an open educational resource, Writing Spaces, and ran it through several readability measures.  (Thanks to the folks who made these things online–can you imagine all this was done manually at one time? The math is gorgeous, but the labor is intense.) I tested all five chapters for three measures and then ran one of the texts through an additional measure just to check. All very casual at this point. I don’t make any claims that might be concrete, solid, or anything like “this is right” because I didn’t check my work, but has it been a fun project for Black Friday? Damn straight.

Most of the measures have been quibbled over in the past and most have been improved upon by the originators and then collaborators–including computer programmers who made modern readability possible online and made the measurement tools all the way open (I love open). I checked for the following (in order of chronological development from the mid- to late 20th century):

  • Flesch–measures reading ease; out of 100 which is the easiest; 60-70 is excellent for a variety of readers; lower scores=harder to read.
  • Flesch-Kincaid, measures text in a similar way to Flesch, but it weights things differently to find the approximate grade-level of a text (at least this measure used to be part of the tools in MS Word).
  • Gunning Fog–years of education needed to read fluently and with comprehension–12 is a senior in high school.
  • SMOG, Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (I swear), suggests the years of education needed to comfortably read a text. (I only used this on one text.)

Go Arizona! If Oregon loses, it will benefit TCU–I’m still “watching” football as white noise at minimum.

I’m not going into detail here, but each chart (below–Figures 1-4 with some notes) can be interpreted individually, but generally, I found the below interesting points (please note that each chapter appears twice on each chart–once without extraneous text included and once with everything–so there are ten bars total):

  • Readability for the text alone is higher (or more difficult) than the text which included everything: references, discussion questions, etc. I think this is because of the shorter sentences of questions and short sentences of the references–a guess for now.
  • Readability levels are slightly higher than I’ve heard is apropos for college: 2 of 5 are in the range I would have guessed for college level; 3 were just a wee bit higher.  And this next is all my memory: I think text for struggling readers in middle school and above (including adults) should be somewhere around 4th-6th grade; high school needs to be 8th-9th grade; college is something like 10th grade and above; post-BA college is much higher.

Well. Writing Spaces appears to rock readability. Still, I coded the names of the articles/authors for now, despite the openness of Writing Spaces, partly because this is fooling around, and it’s not comprehensive; it was just something that came into my head this morning. It could be something terrific later, and I think it will be. For today, it’s glorious fooling around.

(And just to be sure there’s full disclosure: I’m an assistant editor for WS and professionally invested–personally invested, too. And I would like to note that I am doing what I vowed I would in one of the first posts here: include mention of WS in every post, but that’s not been hard at all. AND it’s important for me to make this clear, too, no one involved gets financial compensation on that project–most of what I’ve learned about the open movement isn’t about money anyway; it’s about doing what’s right with the knowledge we gain/create and openly sharing for and with all. Here’s where a kicked-up version of Word Press might have served me better: perhaps I could have added this aside in a footnote.)

The below, Figure 1, is the Flesch measure results, the oldest chronologically, of the readability measures I applied. Here 100 is the easiest to read–100 being a wordless book, I’d guess. The lower the score goes, the more difficult the text. One chapter is in the 40s, but most are in the 50s-70s range: nice.

[Figure 1]

I know the names of the articles are all over the place. For today, I’m okay with this. Hope you are, too. (And the pictures are really poor quality–sigh–that’s something I can fix later. Hope it’s all discernible for today–I mean, readable.)

The below is a collaborative improvement (perhaps) of Flesch with Kincaid, though the measurement is slightly different than Flesch. The 10th grade level is about right, so I’ve read, for college readers–might could be this is correct for beginning college readers, but still generalities get me riled up if I think about them for too long. Might could be a lot of worthwhile work is on the horizon along this vein (or has been done already–need to get into that database). “Might could be” is a Southernism I have apparently picked up and added to my writing repertoire. Wonder what impact it has on my readability?

[Figure 2]

Below, in Figure 3, the Gunning Fog measure (1950s) suggests the years of formal education needed to comprehend a text in a first reading. I am SURE my economics textbook would have measured off the chart.

[Figure 3]

So fuzzy.  BUT so interesting.

I ran one of the essays, the one with the best readability rating in each measure, through SMOG and got this result:

[Figure 4]

That’s worse than them all for fuzz, I’m afraid: the grade level is 10.25 for essay 2LWO (the first part of sophomore year in high school). The Gunning Fog is 9.7; Flesch-Kincaid is 7.1; Flesch is 70.74. All right at the point where I thought college readers might be. But there is a multiple grade difference from the SMOG to the Flesch-Kincaid. Does that matter to me?  No. I don’t think it does.

Who says that these are all right, I wonder? I’ll need to find out if anyone says one measurement system is vastly better than another. But like teaching methods/strategies–I believe nothing is a panacea. Own all the tools, try them all, and individualize whenever possible. People teach people, programs DO NOT teach people. Or put another way: people learn from people, not from programs. No pre-planned curriculum meets the needs of every student. Teachers with a lot of tools to work with and some experience can build a field of dreams. Maybe readability can be another tool for college writing teachers–at least the college writing teachers I’m responsible for helping… and me.

Another thing I need to find out: does all this mean something to college writing instruction as a field? Or is it “been there, done that”? More thinking–great. Minimum takeaway: my syllabus is getting run through a readability tool before the spring term.

For Black Friday, though, I’m mighty happy to have had a project like this to keep me inside (it’s rained all day), to make me write about something I care about (writing about writing is a good thing), to let me think about football peripherally (not a bad thing), and to show me a path I might travel along professionally, or at least investigate more deeply (this might be a yellow brick road for me–where are my ruby slippers?).

Arizona really needs to get it together. It’s not looking good. Do I care more about college football than I let on?

Full disclosure time again: I really love team sports, especially college sports, especially baseball and football, but any sports as metaphors for writing is a fine thing. Hitting in baseball is nice for teaching writing. But isn’t a blog something like a pass in football, specifically a fade? I am throwing to you, the reader, way far down the field.  You had to get all the way through most of this to see what it was all about–but you trusted me, you looked back toward me when you thought the point might arrive, and there was the point, coming to you, and here you got to the end. And if this means anything to you, you can elegantly catch it and run to score in your own way. Isn’t that what writing, thinking, knowledge management, and open is all about? I pitch, you catch. Later, you throw it back, better than before–or better still–together, we do something spectacular.

Writing is indeed like team sports. Perhaps it’s more like being a pitcher than a quarterback, but no matter the details, it’s about trust and not being alone on the field. I find great comfort in that.

Last play of the game: the readability for this post. Go out 5 and turn left to the hash mark on zebra white blue 86 hut. And there’s the catch: I’m writing so 9th graders can get it. I’m good with my general readability level being at 9th grade. Might could be it’s my ideal audience. Might could be that I’ve never really stopped being 14 years old.


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