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Right on, Sheila!
Grade level equivalents are the real problem.  Commonly used readability
formulas rank passages in difficulty about the same, so don't fear to use
Word's convenient formulas.  At the CRLA conference several years ago,
Karen Agee and I presented our analysis of a large number of
passages  using several well-known formulas.   Our conclusions follow:

1.      Readability formulas work well on general reading materials, less well
on technical writing.  Our research suggests that the formulas work better
on general periodicals and non-fiction books than on textbooks and
philosophical writings at the college level.

2.      Readability formulas use language features to estimate the difficulty
readers will have with a text.  They do not take into account additional
features:  linguistic, conceptual, structural, cognitive and contextual
features.  At higher levels of difficulty, these features often take
precedence over sentence length and word familiarity.

3.      Choice of an optimal readability formula may be a personal decision.
        --The Qualitative Assessment of Text Difficulty (Chall, et al.) works
beautifully for holistic, global, speedy assessment.  Those people who are
comfortable with assessment by subjective judgment can evaluate a series of
passages in moments.
       --Computerized formulas are ideal for people who work next to a
computer.  They can type in samples from the text (or scan in a longer
selection) and get objective results immediately afterwards.
       --The Revised Dale-Chall Readability Formula is useful for a relatively
fast analysis (five to seven minutes per passage) with objectivity.
       --The Fry Readability Scale is easy to learn and apply, requiring three
to four minutes per passage.

4.      The readability formulas and scales we examined do permit us to rank
passages by difficulty with a high degree of consistency.

5.      THE FORMULAS DO NOT AGREE AMONG THEMSELVES AS TO THE PRECISE GRADE LEVEL
OR DIFFICULTY LEVEL OF THE MATERIAL.

6.      The readability formulas and scales confirmed our prior subjective
judgments of the comparative difficulty of the passages.

7.      Readability formulas and scales rank individual passages less reliably
if the passages differ only slightly in difficulty than if they differ greatly.

The advantage of formulas is that they are objective.  Nic Voge is right in
that they do not take into account all the variables that we know
affect  reading difficulty.  They use two important factors that previous
researchers have determined explain about 74% of the variance in difficulty
of texts:  Word frequency (reflected in word length--in syllables or
letters) and sentence complexity (reflected in sentence length).

Linda Johnson
Kirkwood Community College
Iowa City
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At 10:57 AM 04/24/2001 -0500, you wrote:
Nic Voge asks: Do readability formulae truly reflect what we know about
reading, text organization, etc.? And, if not, aren't they inherently flawed?

I'm not sure readability formulae can tell us anything about "reading" per se.
I think they tell us only what they purport to tell us, i.e., the grade
equivalent of a piece of text as determined by the length of sentences and
number of syllables in the words contained within. I teach readability formulae
to my preservice teachers in Content Area Reading so that they will know that
it is a measure that's commonly used to generate a grade equivalent. I also
teach them how to use other text assessments that evaluate requisite prior
knowledge, text organization, cultural bias, etc.

I think it's important that we understand how readability formulae are used so
that we can make informed decisions in textbook selection and recognize how
publishers will "dumb down" text in order to get it at a certain grade level.
To me, the formulae are but one way of analyzing print and therefore not
"inherently" flawed. It's the notion of grade level or equivalent that is more
questionable.

Sheila

Sheila A. Nicholson, Lecturer
Dept. of Curriculum and Instruction
Southwest Texas State University