Is your content making the grade?

Grade level is now a vital readability metric. Why is grade level still relevant? And how might it be useful in your organization?
Evelyn Wolf
5 min read

Let’s talk about the grade-level readability test. It’s a test with almost half a century of history. Developed by J. Peter Kincaid, the US Navy originally commissioned it back in 1975. Three years later, the Army used it to make sure their instruction manuals were easily readable. Soon after, it became a United States Military Standard. The news spread. Pennsylvania became the first state to require that automobile insurance policies be written at 9th-grade level or lower.

Fast forward forty-five years. Grade level is now a vital readability metric. Why is grade level still relevant? And how might it be useful in your organization?

What is the grade level readability test?

Grade level represents the number of years of education you need to easily understand a piece of written content. It is an objective metric to quantify complexity in writing. The higher the grade level, the more complex the content is. And the harder it is to easily understand. Many organizations strive for a grade level of 8 or lower in their written communications. Think of it as a proxy for cognitive load. Cognitive load is how much mental energy you spend on a task.

Now there are other readability metrics too. For instance, the Flesch Reading Ease test, which gives text a score of 0-100. The higher the score the easier it is to read.

Let’s take an example

The first book in the Harry Potter series is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It gets a grade level of five. That means you need five years of education to understand it. In the US, you’d be in 5th grade, so about 10-11 years old. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Near the other end of the scale, The New Yorker has an average grade level of 11. So you’d need 11 years of education to easily understand it. Again, maybe that sounds about right? The New Yorker is a somewhat high-brow magazine.

But what if I told you that The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has a grade level of 13. It’s more difficult to read than The New Yorker. The ACA aims to make healthcare available and accessible to all. But we know that the average American reads at an 8th grade level. And it’s even worse when it comes to health literacy. In the US, over 75 million adults combined have basic or below basic health literacy. This means people are unable to read instructions on a prescription label and determine what time a person can take medication. Writing at a 6 or below level would ensure that everyone can understand. The ACA itself is therefore seven grade levels too difficult for the general population. Now we’ve got issues.

Why readability grade level matters

Objective metrics allow us to measure performance. Let’s take an example. Many of us use fitness trackers. They tell us how many steps we’ve taken daily. What our heart rate is. And if we get super exotic, even our VO2 levels. When you have metrics, then you can measure improvement.

The problem is unless you score written content, you have no metrics. No objective way to tell if it’s too complex. And no way to tell if you’re improving. So, first, we need to score content and encourage SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) to do so.

A second problem relates to what social psychologists refer to as illusory superiority. This is where many of us think we’re better at something relative to the rest of a similar population. At VisibleThread, we work with individuals and organizations. Many feel they communicate in an above-average way. So, you need some kind of metric to baseline improvement.

Let’s look at some data

We conducted research on the terms and conditions of 50 credit card companies in the banking sector. Our findings showed that none of them were pitched at the recommended grade level of 8 or below. In fact, the bottom 10 organizations averaged a grade level of 14.67. That’s almost post-graduate college level. And whilst many of these banks’ customers may well have gone to college, how many have the patience to wade through overly complex content. Remember, grade level is a proxy for complexity.

Or take a different industry, let’s look again at healthcare. Our research into Medicare insurers found that the content of 86.6% of the insurers scored between a 6.2 and 10.6 grade level. Medicare serves U.S. citizens who are 65 years old or over. We know already that we should create content for this demographic at 6th-grade level or lower. Therefore, 86.6% of the healthcare insurers we surveyed were producing content that almost half of their audience wouldn’t understand.

How to decide what grade level to pitch at

Not sure what grade level to aim for? There are a few factors that will help you decide. Ask these questions:

Who are you talking to?

First, think about your general customer base, or target audience. What’s their average age? Are they native English speakers? What’s their life stage? Do they have a young family, or are they empty nesters? You might not necessarily use all of these details when deciding readability grade level, but they will help give you a sense of your customers’ profile. That will allow you to be empathetic, and make your communications fit your audience.

Visualize the reader of each piece of content. Are you talking to prospects in a sales cycle? Or customers who have raised a complaint? Or are you writing to a patient who’s recently had a tough medical diagnosis? Remember cognitive load theory. The more people have going on, the less likely your message will be to cut through the noise. You need to be extra clear and write to a low-grade level.

What level of education does your reader have?

Consider how many years of education your audience has.

But aside from years of education, you need to consider their knowledge of your specific subject area. Recall the credit card example above. College graduates will have a high level of education, but in what area? Engineering grads will most likely have a hard time understanding financial content pitched at 14th grade level.

But what if you know that your audience is very familiar with your subject area? For example, if you work in business-to-business. Or when you’re communicating with internal teams. In some cases, you can be sure that your reader will be comfortable reading at a higher-grade level, so you might adjust your level as required. Just remember that the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English.

What is the content?

What’s the message behind your communication? Is it something familiar? Or the first time you’re writing about a particular subject? Is it bad news? In which case, language will need to be clearer so the reader can focus on the message. Again, cognitive load theory comes into play.

How is the grade level calculated and how do you measure it? 

The Grade Level calculation comprises two factors:

  1. Average syllable count per word and
  2. Average Sentence length.

Now, here’s the science bit. The formula for calculating grade level is:

But you’re not expected to work out this math for yourself. Solutions like VT Insights Platform calculate grade level automatically. Along with other important indicators of readability, such as density of passive voice. You simply upload documents or enter text, and the solution scans and scores your content. It allows writers to make sure they stay on track. And enables management to benchmark team performance, and make sure things are moving in the right direction.

It’s not just grade level, empathy is everything

Just keep in mind that a focus on grade level in isolation will not guarantee clear content. You need to consider all readability factors and take a commonsense approach. Use everyday examples to compare with your content. Is it as difficult to read as a PhD thesis? Or is it as simple as a Harry Potter book? Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, and picture how they’re consuming your content. What else are they dealing with? In most cases, keeping it simple will be the most welcome option.


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