Readability: Practical Steps for Teachers
By David Wray
One of the key things that teachers need to get right in teaching reading is the match between the reader and the text. Text which is too difficult will put readers off. Text which is too easy will not help them learn. Getting this match right depends on an understanding of readability.
How to Begin
Think about a time when you realised that a text was too hard for one of your students to read. What was the cause of this mismatch?
- Maybe the ideas in the text were too complex for your reader to grasp? Could you explain them in other ways?
- Maybe the problem was with the language in which someone wrote them? Could the ideas be rewritten in simpler ways?
- Maybe it was the text presentation that caused the problem? Could a different typeface or coloured background make things any easier?
What information or knowledge does your reader need to have BEFORE they can understand this text?
- What do they need to know about the topic already?
- Does the reader need to be familiar with any key vocabulary?
- Are there any key expressions or terms that a reader of this text is expected to know already?
- Is the situation where the reading takes place a comfortable one?
- Can do as a teacher to help prepare your reader to read this text more effectively?
Is the text written in a way that is likely to help or hinder the reading?
- The length of the sentences: longer sentences are usually harder to read and understand.
- The complexity of the sentences: the more subordinate clauses there are, the harder the text will be to read.
- The density of the ideas in each sentence: the more propositions each sentence contains, the harder it will be to understand.
- The text style: is this a familiar style for the reader?
- The familiarity of the vocabulary used: the more everyday vocabulary in the text, the easier it will be to understand.
Is the presentation of the text likely to help or hinder your reader?
- Text colour: which is easier to read, black text on a white background (the usual arrangement) or white text on a yellow background (or any other colour combinations you can think of)?
- Text font: which of the following is easier to read?
Fonts can be tricky!
All these questions relate to the readability of the text. And, naturally, all have been researched. It would be helpful for you to become familiar with some of this research.
What Can You Do?
You need to know more about readability to make things as easy as possible for your readers. Things you can do are:
- Think about your own reading. What makes the difference to you regarding how easy/difficult you find certain texts?
- Ask your students what they find easy or difficult to read. They will not all prefer the same things!
- Compare the text in various books or other documents you expect your students to read. You may find you can begin to predict which texts certain students will find difficult to read. How are you making these predictions? Were your predictions always correct?
- Try some experiments using your computer to print out text in various ways. Which do students prefer or find more readable?
You may also be interested in our research programme into the nature and use of readability. You can download some key papers I've written by searching for my name online.