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Lexile Analysis

June 14, 2004

A friend offered this advice about these columns: “You use too many big words.” I was incredulous. I thought he was joking and that I’d simply missed the joke. But he was serious.

I did not take the advice lightly. Theologists read and write a lot. He recalled advice he’d received years ago about writing sermons: Write them at a fifth-grade level so as not to lose anyone.

Despite the obvious problem about ever discussing transubstantiation if this advice were followed, I was curious about my columns. Did they measure up? Or down, as the case may be.

I take pains to shorten phrases, use active voice, chose Anglo-Saxon words over Latinate … how many big words could I possibly be using?

So, I ran my last five columns through some online text analyzers.

You might be familiar with the Lexile scores used in education and publishing. I put my last column through the Lexile Analyzer (www.lexile.com) and received a score of 940L. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” has a Lexile of 880L.

Lexile measures are based on two variables: word frequency and sentence length, albeit by a sophisticated algorithm. There are other measures. Another analyzer (at www.aellalei.com) gives three scores: Flesch Reading Ease, Fog Scale Level, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Flesch Reading Ease is counter-intuitive: a higher number is easier. Sixty is considered plain English, maybe 9th grade. My test columns ranged between 70 and 80, easier yet.

The Fog Scale uses a simple formula with sentence length and number of syllables. Five is easy; 20 is very difficult. My columns ranged from 8-10; not bad.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is really just a conversion from the Flesch score above. My grade levels ranged from 7.64 to 5.33 by this measure.

So I’m a pretty simple writer. I’m on par with Louis L’Amour, whose Sackett series ranges from 850L-970L.

Obviously, there’s more to writing (and reading comprehension) than can be measured in formulas based on syllables, sentence length, or defined vocabulary lists of “hard” words.

Paragraphs of very short sentences can be hard to read, as well as annoying. Longer sentences by an author with good sense and a good ear are much easier to read, no matter the vocabulary.

Vocabulary does matter, of course. The word “inequality,” at five syllables, counts more in these text analyzers than “quark.” Jargon can distort results, especially when simple terms stand for complex ideas.

From vocabulary, one moves naturally to content, and who can measure that but a human being? Others have told me they read my columns with a dictionary, but I think my columns are quite readable … and now I have the numbers to prove it!

Occasional words might account for this perception of vocabulary in these columns — words required for discussion of a particular topic. I’ve had to use a dictionary myself. The ideal would be to write about complex subjects but still rate easy readability scores.

I changed five large words in my last column (at the cost of some precision) and lowered a few scores (although not the Lexile level, which might be a more robust measure).

The Lexile measure, by the way, is designed so that when a reader is matched with a book of the same score, the reader comprehends 75% of the text. The idea is to both interest and challenge the reader — neither boring nor defeating him.

I would hope to do the same.

For comparison:

The Lexile of today’s column = 780L

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone = 880L

First four paragraphs of The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad = 1100L

Preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein = 1140L

Column date 6/7 5/31 5/24 5/17 5/10
Lexile 940L 750L 870L 870L 840L
Flesch Reading Ease 70.2 73.98 75.08 71.42 80.59
Fog Scale Level 10.05 9.04 8.15 9.38 8.13
F-K Grade Level 7.64 6.05 5.93 6.89 5.33
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