Readability is important in at least four main areas:
- Improving the accessibility of website texts.
- Providing comprehensible input for language learning purposes;
- Providing criteria for the selection, adaptation or writing of materials for content instruction;
- Comparing texts used for examination purposes;
Improving the accessibility of website texts
The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guideline 14 states:
"Ensure that documents are clear and simple so that they may be more easily understood.
Consistent page layout, recognizable graphics, and easy to understand language benefit all users. In particular, they help people with cognitive disabilities or who have difficulty reading. (However, ensure that images have text equivalents for people who are blind, have low vision, or for any user who cannot or has chosen not to view graphics.)
Using clear and simple language promotes effective communication. Access to written information can be difficult for people who have cognitive or learning disabilities. Using clear and simple language also benefits people whose first language differs from your own, including those people who communicate primarily in sign language.
14.1 Use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site's content. [Priority 1]
14.2 Supplement text with graphic or auditory presentations where they will facilitate comprehension of the page. [Priority ;3]
14.3 Create a style of presentation that is consistent across pages. [Priority 3]"
The W3C Core Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 include the following recommendations:
"5.1 Writing Style
The following writing style suggestions should help make the content of your site easier to read for everyone, especially people with reading and/or cognitive disabilities. Several guides ... discuss these and other writing style issues in more detail.
- Strive for clear and accurate headings and link descriptions. This includes using link phrases that are terse and that make sense when read out of context or as part of a series of links (Some users browse by jumping from link to link and listening only to link text.) Use informative headings so that users can scan a page quickly for information rather than reading it in detail.
- State the topic of the sentence or paragraph at the beginning of the sentence or paragraph (this is called "front-loading"). This will help both people who are skimming visually, but also people who use speech synthesizers. "Skimming" with speech currently means that the user jumps from heading to heading, or paragraph to paragraph and listens to just enough words to determine whether the current chunk of information (heading, paragraph, link, etc.) interests them. If the main idea of the paragraph is in the middle or at the end, speech users may have to listen to most of the document before finding what they want. Depending on what the user is looking for and how much they know about the topic, search features may also help users locate content more quickly.
- Limit each paragraph to one main idea.
- Avoid slang, jargon, and specialized meanings of familiar words, unless defined within your document.
- Favor words that are commonly used. For example, use "begin" rather than "commence" or use "try" rather than "endeavor."
- Use active rather than passive verbs.
- Avoid complex sentence structures.
To help determine whether your document is easy to read, consider using the Gunning-Fog reading measure ..... This algorithm generally produces a lower score when content is easier to read. As example results, the Bible, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and TV Guide all have Fog indexes of about 6. Time, Newsweek, and the Wall St. Journal an average Fog index of about 11."
However, using the Gunning-Fog reading measure has its limitations, as discussed elsewhere. Using the Readability Analyser provides a better index and a visible means of seeing where text readability problems may lie.
Providing comprehensible input
Even without invoking the input hypothesis (Krashen, 1985), it is obvious that learners cannot learn through reading if what they are trying to read is almost incomprehensible. Even trying to read material which is accessible with difficulty is likely to be demotivating unless the reader is spurred on by special interest or aided by a great deal of relevant background knowledge. Demotivation soon leads to abandonment of the effort. But reading provides some learners with most of their best input for learning purposes. Providing reading material at the right level not only provides input from which students can learn, it provides more of it since reading efficiency is enhanced and more is read. Readers can get a sense of achievement from reading longer stretches of text and success breeds success. For these reasons finding suitable texts is extremely important and probably more important than providing the variety of text types often found in L2 reading materials.
"Krashen suggests that "narrow reading, and perhaps narrow input in general, is more efficient for second language acquisition" (Krashen 1981:23). Reading teachers usually provide short and varied selections which never allow students to adjust to an author's style, to become familiar with the specialized vocabulary of the topic, or to develop enough context to facilitate comprehension. Rather, such selections force students to move from frustration to frustration." (Carrell & Eisterhold 1988:86)
Finding suitable texts, of interest to the reader and at a suitable level of difficulty is extremely important.
Using the Readability Analyser can assist in finding texts of a suitable level and, if necessary help in the adaptation of these texts.
Many (perhaps most) learners of English as a second language need English for access to content.
"the provision of comprehensible input to non-native learners is the principal task of teachers, not only in second or foreign language classrooms, but also in many other educational programs throughout the world in which L2 learners must learn subject matter via the medium of L2." (Chaudron 1983:440)
In many educational and training establishments thought is given to the comprehensibility of textbooks and training materials. Many teaching materials (for content instruction) are also written or adapted in these institutions with particular students in mind. An awareness of the factors which influence comprehensibility can help materials writers produce better instructional materials. Although it is not the place of language teachers to say how subject matter should be taught, they can help to sensitise subject matter instructors to the difficulties students have in learning in a second language and make suggestions as to how instructional materials can be made more accessible. A strong case has also been made for content based language instruction, (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989) and teachers need to be able to assess the difficulty of content based materials in order to decide what difficulties their students are likely to encounter with such texts, how to use them for language learning purposes and how to make them more accessible (not necessarily by altering the texts themselves).
Using the Readability Analyser can assist in writing or adapting instructional materials at suitable level.
Testing reading comprehension
Factors which affect readability must be taken into account in the testing of reading comprehension. First of all there is the question of trying to ensure that parallel tests are equivalent. Different texts used in parallel tests have to be shown to be of equivalent difficulty. Along with other factors, this will clearly affect the reliability of the tests. The effect of background knowledge on performance in reading tests will also have an effect on results (Perkins & Jones, 1985; Perkins & Brutten, 1988; Alderson & Urquhart, 1988), as may cultural knowledge:
“Another area in which the impact of cultural differences has been recognized is testing. In discussing the assessment or oral language proficiency and language dominance, Burt and Dulay (1978) point out that background information is a factor that must be considered: In order not to confound linguistic proficiency and knowledge of the world, the content of a language measure...... must not be outside the experience of the students being tested, not inconsistent with their cultural customs and values." (Steffensen & Joag-Dev 1984:51)
Cultural factors may be said to include expectations about text structure (Floyd & Carrell, 1987; Johnson, 1981) and reading strategies (Pritchard, 1990; Parry, 1996) so tests should also take account of the different populations of students taking the test.
Much of this is not new. Such considerations were pointed out by Steffensen & Joag-Dev in 1984:
"Recent TESL and foreign-language pedagogy has moved away from the idea that comprehension involves abstracting meaning that is in some sense present on the page and is recognizing the creative contribution made by the reader. Interference is now understood as extending beyond the affective domain to the denotative values of words, and the propositional content at the sentence and text level.
While such an awareness is a major step forward, teachers, publishers and test developers can move beyond recognizing interference to minimizing it and maximizing students' success in bridging to the target culture. ……… Text developers can perform an important service by employing writers with a detailed (or native) knowledge of the students' cultural background to produce reading materials and by using ethnic reviewers to screen out potential misunderstandings. Finally, evaluators must recognize that tests will more accurately reflect the reading ability of non-native groups vis-à-vis their native speaking peers if passages with heavy cultural loadings are avoided." (Steffensen & Joag-Dev 1984:61)
Using the Readability Analyser can assist in assessing,writing or adapting test texts.