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February 12, 2014

An opinion piece published last year in The Washington Post[1] contained some interesting statistics. At age three, children of professional parents have had about 45 million words addressed to them, while children of working-class parents have had only half as many (26 million). Welfare children have heard half again as many (13 million). When it comes time to take standardized tests for college entrance, whom do you think will have the advantage? I no longer have any faith that the educational system can bridge this gap.

Language is the unique tool that humans have which allows transmission of information between generations and across great distances. It's become much more important in the present age. Information is now so easy to obtain through Internet sources, but that information is useless if you can't understand it. I must confess needing to find the definition of unfamiliar words I find in popular articles. At my age, I'm no longer "with it," language-wise.

Portion of the Hippocratic oath in Latin

Voices from the past.

Portion of the Hippocratic oath (Hippocratis iusiurandum) in Latin.

(From a 1595, Frankfurt, Germany, rendition in Greek and Latin, "Ex Apud Andreae Wecheli heredes," via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Voice of America (VOA) sometimes broadcasts in a simplified language called Special English. There are just 1580 words in the Special English vocabulary, which seem to be enough to explain most simple concepts. There are also 31 science terms used by the VOA, as listed below.

 densegenetic engineeringnucleic acidvirus

These words might suffice for popular articles about science, but more complex topics require a greater vocabulary. As I wrote in a previous article (Culturomics, January 13, 2011), there are about a half million words in the English language, and about 8,500 new words enter the lexicon annually.[2] It's now common knowledge that language is not static and new words are added all the time. The plot of a recent television show on Nickelodeon involved getting the word, "Lumpatious," into the Oxnard English Dictionary.

Of course, an author should try to simplify as much as he can, and try not to use too many "big words" in any article. That brings us to today's topic, readability. I wrote about readability in a previous article (Readability and Word Length, September 14, 2012).

Although there are many short, archaic words that are likely unknown to students, most will say that it's the "big words" that are troublesome. That idea is actually the basis for a readability algorithm called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.[3] This test, which is built into many word processors, presents its results as either as an indication of the appropriate school grade level for the text, or a percentage of reading ease; viz.,
Flesch-Kincaid Grade =

Flesch Reading Ease =
205.835 - (1.015*(words/sentences))-(84.6*(syllables/words))
In these formulas, words, sentences and syllables are the total counts for these objects in the manuscript. The reading ease corresponds to text being understood by a particular age group (90->100 = 11 year olds, 60->70 = 13-15 year olds, and 0->30 = college graduate.) Parameters of Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test

Graphical illustration of Flesch-Kincaid grade level.

The average number of syllables per word has a much greater affect on grade level than the average number of words per sentence.

(Graphed using Gnumeric.)

The US military funded the Flesch-Kincaid research as a way to ensure that their training materials and maintenance manuals were understood by its recruits. My articles are at about a tenth grade level according to Flesch-Kincaid. My two novels have a very accessible Flesch-Kincaid rating of sixth grade.

John C. Begeny, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, and graduate student, Diana J. Greene, performed a study to determine the accuracy of eight common readability tests. Their findings were published in the January, 2014, issue of the journal, Psychology in the Schools.[4-5] In this study, they assessed these tests against the oral reading fluency of 360 elementary school students in second to fifth grade.[4-5]

In the study, students read six written passages out loud, and their oral reading fluency, which is a good metric for measuring reading ability, was scored.[5] It was found that the readability test were considerably inaccurate, with one particular passage being rated from first grade to fifth grade level.[5] Seven of the eight tests were found to be less than 49% accurate, and one of the tests was only 17% accurate. The best test was accurate 79% of the time.[5] Most of the readability tests were more accurate for higher grade levels.[4]

Begeny says, in summary,
"Overall, this work shows that teachers and parents should be very cautious about using readability levels when giving reading assignments to students."[5]

In my opinion, if psychologists team with some computer scientists, I'm sure they would be able to develop a better readability test using common computer science techniques.

Quacksalber (Quack)

Familiar words starting with Q?

There's a dearth of simple "Q" objects in English. Probably the only one familiar to most children is "queen." Other possibilities are a quarter coin, a quilt, and a quiver.

This must be the case, also, in German, since this 1830 alphabet book, "Erstes Buch für Kinder," by J. E. Friedberg, used "quack" as the example.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. George F. Will, "America's broken bootstraps," Washington Post, June 19, 2013.
  2. Jean-Baptiste Michel, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books," Science, vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), pp. 176-182.
  3. J. Peter Kincaid, Richard Braby and John E. Mears, "Electronic authoring and delivery of technical information," Journal of Instructional Development, vol. 11, no. 2 (June, 1988), pp. 8-13.
  4. John C. Begeny and Diana J. Greene, "Can Readability Formulas be used to Successfully Gauge Difficulty of Reading Materials?" Online before Print, DOI: 10.1002/pits.21740 (January, 2014).
  5. Study Shows 'Readability' Scores Are Largely Inaccurate, North Carolina State University Press Release, January 8, 2014.

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