Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How tough are you to read?

I'm teaching a course this fall, a seminar for the Campus Honors Program. I've been working on the syllabus and with that I had to specify the length of the writing assignments. I want the students to deliver their writing in blogs, to make the writing readily available to their peers and to the rest of the world. So I specified a minimal length for their pieces (and a maximal length too) via a word count. Most of the time when I'm writing I'm doing it in MS Word. The 2007 version gives a running total on the Word count in a pane in the bar below the page, next to the page number.

It occurred to me that perhaps the students wouldn't have access to Word on their own computers. So I wondered for other alternatives whether the software they would access produced that sort of statistic. It seems most of the students use Gmail when they are contacting me. (In a very small sample from this class it was right at 80%.) So I looked at what Google Docs produces on this score. There is a Word Count item in the Tools menu. The screen shot I've got in this post is to the report from my book chapter, Writing As Guessing. It gives many other statistics than simply word count.

I actually checked out several of my chapters on these metrics and chose this one, because it was the easiest. The other chapters have the Flesch Reading Ease indicator (this was new to me, higher numbers means it is easier to read) in the 60s and the Grade Level indicator as 8.0. Although I pride myself on making my content accessible (in an intellectual sense), I have to say I was depressed by these scores. Would a sixth grader really have no problem reading this stuff?

I tried a few other pieces to see for comparison sake. This book review about health care reform, had a Flesch Reading Ease score just below 40 and a grade level of 11. The average characters per word was greater by one and the average words per sentence was greater by three. Then I tried this essay from Saul Bellow in the the Times Writers on Writing series. The reading ease indicator was in the mid 60s and the grade level was 7. Phew!!! Though it might be that these scales need to be re-normed.

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