I’ve Changed My Opinion on the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level Model (Somewhat)
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
I used to hate the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level model.
I didn’t hear about it once until I went off to college… which made for a very happy childhood. But as soon as I did discover it, I found it to be utterly obnoxious.
And that opinion grew with further disdain once I entered the real world.
Naturally, I can’t properly excoriate the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level tool without first explaining what it is. So here goes, courtesy of webfx.com:
Developed by Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid, the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores are the most widely used measures of readability…
[A] Flesch-Kincaid grade level tells you the American school grade you would need to be in to comprehend the material on the page.
As a measure, most of your writing should be able to be understood by students in seventh grade.
Incidentally, it only scores up to 12th grade. So just because you see that result doesn’t mean you’re not writing on a higher educational plane.
Regardless, Reference.com adds that it determines grades “by considering the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables in a word to determine how complex the text is.”
If that sounds like a useful tool, I’ve come to see that it is. It’s the determination that professional publications should cater to seventh graders that always annoyed me.
And still does.
At the dead-set certain risk of going off on a rant, there is absolutely no reason why we should dumb down adult content to a seventh-grade level.
Do we want to promote the need for average adults to only have seventh-grade educations? In that case, why teach English or language arts after middle school?
It’s an absolute waste of time, effort and money, isn't it?
I’m not saying that everyone should be able to read on a collegiate level. College isn’t right for everyone anyway, and I don’t say that to sound like a snob. Considering its high costs and murky results, if you can skip it, go for it.
You’ll be in far less debt as a result.
But, come on, people! Let’s still aim for high school graduation. That really doesn’t seem like it’s asking too much.
For that reason, I remain just as opposed as ever to the conclusion drawn from the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level evaluation. However, I guess I let that blind me to the tool’s innate usefulness – until something came along to show me the error of my ways.
That something was an article written with the longest sentences and most technical terms. Supposedly published for public consumption, it was largely unreadable as it was.
Or, put another way, it wasn’t worth reading. Not for the amount of time it would have taken to break apart each jam-packed sentence.
No doubt, you construct your sentences to be understood by your readers. But the more words you put into each, the more convoluted they become, forcing people’s brains to continue on with a thought… linking one idea after another after another right in a row without the benefit of a mental and visual pause.
That’s what periods (and question and exclamation marks) are for. To allow readers to collect their thoughts – even if for only a nanosecond – in order to better process what they’ve just read.
The same thing goes for going easy on big or obscure words. It’s not that you can’t show off your impressive vocabulary. It’s just that you shouldn’t do so at the expense of your audience’s comprehension.
Flaunt your knowledge a bit more sparingly than you otherwise might want to. If a simpler or more common word works just as well, then use it. It will almost certainly be for the best.
That’s why I’m actually changing my mind on using the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level scoring system. Because it does catch those kinds of issues, even when we’re otherwise oblivious.
My one sticking point is that we use it while promoting a high-school education. Shoot for 10th- or 11th grade-level writing (since “12th" includes such a wide range of actual possibilities).
We’ll all be smarter – and more grateful – as a result.