Checking the Readability Level of your Training Documents

Last week I had an opportunity to present at the Online Learning Conference in Chicago. After my session was over, I snuck in to several other sessions, including Julie Dirksen’s session entitled The Science of Attention, Willpower and Decision-making for Better eLearning. The facts and figures she presented were compelling (especially the way in which she dispelled the “human attention span is only 8 seconds” statistic), but it was a Microsoft Word trick she mentioned in passing that I found most interesting and couldn’t wait to try.   

Unbeknownst to me, you can check the “readability” of your documents in Word and it will calculate a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score for your materials.

While the simple fact that you can do this in Word is fascinating to me (who knew Word had such tricks??), it actually seems like it could help the training materials I put together in the future.

While I’ve not seen any credible research on it, I have often heard that a good rule of thumb is to write business materials at the 8th grade level for maximum understanding. Our learners are busy professionals and often have other things to think about – while we don’t necessarily want to “dumb down” out content, there’s no harm in keeping our training materials and business writing simple enough to be easily processed.

As you can see, Word has informed me that the above section, as-written, is currently being rated at a grade level of 15.3.

reading-level

How can you magically check the reading level of your writing? On my computer I hit Fn + F7 (although on other computers you need not hit “Fn”, you just press F7).


Just for fun, the following is my attempt to bring the above text down from a grade level rating of 15.3:

Last week I presented at an elearning conference. When I was done presenting, I attended someone else’s session. I learned that you can check the grade-level rating for your writing!

I’m fascinated by this new trick in Word. I also think it will be helpful for writing future training materials. I’ve heard that the rule of thumb is that we should write for an 8th grade audience.

reading-level-2

Hmmm. Maybe I went a little too simple. But hopefully you get the point.

Stumbling upon this trick made me wonder what other hidden gems may be embedded within Word, just waiting to be discovered.

If you’ve found other shortcuts or commands in Word (or PowerPoint or any other Office program), please share in the Comment section!

20 thoughts on “Checking the Readability Level of your Training Documents

  1. Thanks for your post! (I was there, too)

    I have heard that this feature has been removed from MS Word 2016 but there are web sites that allow you to pour your text in for a reading score. Also, the checking seems to be “hit or miss” with tables.

  2. I have been using this for years. Managers do not like to hear that their staff does not really read at a college level. Also, another factor to take into consideration is the native language of your learners. I created training materials in an organization where the official language was English but many of the learners were non-native speakers. Grade level and use of colloquialism becomes an important part of creating effective materials

    • Great point about learners’ native language! I do a lot of work in India where English is the official language, but the further we get from management and the closer we get to the front line, the higher the likelihood that English isn’t a language the learners are completely comfortable with. Definitely a useful feature in this regard.

  3. Good point, Brian, and good trick to point out! I work in an international NGO and develop training materials for employees for whom English is a second language. We try to write for a 7th grade level or even lower. Another key is to avoid slang or idioms, which is even more important for translation purposes – pretty funny to see the translations you can get from those! Thanks for this article!

  4. In my business writing and technical writing classes we discuss the readability level of your documents and checking it with Word. It’s not an exact science, but can at least give you an idea of how complex your writing is.

    Instead of “dumbing down” your writing, think of it as making it easy to read. We are all processing a ton of information daily, and reading in a way that is very different from when most of us were in school (skimming, scanning, prioritizing, deleting). You want your writing to be the thing that is read and understood–not deleted.

    • “You want your writing to be the thing that is read and understood–not deleted.” Amen to that, Karen!! Any other tricks that are covered in your business/technical writing classes that we might want to keep in mind??

      • I think the biggest issue stems from the way we were accustomed to writing in high school and college. Like developing a 5-page book report and adopting a formal, impersonal tone. Business writing needs are different (no one wants our 5-page paper!), and we’re processing so much information on a daily basis, the way we write should adapt as well. Conversational (but still professional) text is easy and interesting to read. Contractions and personal pronouns may have been considered taboo in school (too informal), but they’re great for business writing.

        “Plain Language” is a concept embraced by the U.S. The idea is that constituents deserve to be able to understand what they’re reading from government agencies–NOT like a typical IRS form. The Plain Language website provides tips on writing clearly and concisely at plainlanguage.gov. Here in Washington state, agencies have adopted a similar concept called “Plain Talk.” It’s all good business writing!

        The best tip I can give for good business or technical writing is to think first about your reader. I think so often we get caught up in what we want to say, rather than thinking of “what do they need to hear?” Whatever our area of expertise, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and want to go on and on–but that usually does not serve the reader well. Think of it from their perspective. What MUST they know? Leave out the details that were only important to you. Use language and level of details that they understand. And above all else, remember “Brevity = Impact.”

  5. To insert “lorem” placeholder text into a Word document or PowerPoint text box, just type =lorem(). It’s great when you are working on storyboard layouts and don’t yet have your final text.

    • Ooooo. I like that tip – definitely helpful for things like Storyboards when there will eventually be content, but content isn’t central at a certain (early) point in the review process.

      Any idea if =piratelorem() would give you Pirate Lorem text???

  6. Yes! I learned about this at my first e-learning job then totally forgot about it. The SEO WordPress plugin Yoast has a readability component to it that’s even more advanced – telling you exactly how it’s calculating your readability score.

    As far as other shortcuts, I’m a huge fan of developer tools in Word when creating templates to make things like titles consistently appear everywhere.

    • Well then, I’m glad I could serve as a reminder!

      I’ve tried using developer tools but I have a feeling they’re waaaay underutilized in my works. I’m thinking I may need to find someone (I’m looking at you!) to do a guest post on developer tools sometime soon!!

  7. A good thing to remember about this is how they determine the score. The two biggest factors are number of syllables in words and number of words per sentence. Limiting these things makes it easier to understand!

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