What is in a Number?

June 26, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 2 Comments

(Authored by Kristina Dye)

If a paper follows all grammar, punctuation, and all writing rules, does it matter that it was written at a certain grade level?  What does it even mean to have a grade level 19 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level?  Does this number really determine the quality of the writing or the book?  What is there in a number if the content and meaning is lost?

I am not stating that it is acceptable to write a paragraph like the following in the eighth grade. ‘The dog ran fast. It ran past me. Wow!  What a fast dog.’  I am questioning whether it is acceptable to write at a grade level lower than the student’s actual grade, as long as the content and meaning, sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar are not that of a small child first learning to write?

I know that we discussed the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and the Flesch Reading Ease, but it was touched on briefly.  We also learned how to start the program running in Microsoft Word.  However, I wanted to know where Flesch-Kincade acquired their formulas to pin point a grade level rating and what it means for writing. I also wanted to inquire how much impact it has on the students and teachers.

Wikipedia points out that the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and the Flesch Reading Ease are two mathematical formulas that are used to assess the level of writing.  The foundation of both formulas is the amount of words in the sentence as well as the length of the words.  Although, word length and sentence length are used by both they are factored in differently allowing the Reading Ease to show you how readable something is, and the Grade level to give you a grade level that the writing/reading associates with.  Wikipedia also explains how to use the results.  But where do they get the numbers for each formula and how do they know what weighs more?  Joe’s Web Tools takes it a bit farther by giving a brief history of the two equations; even there it is not explained as to where the numbers come from.  I was unable to find anymore information about the start of the two formulas.

One issue I have with both the Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level and the Flesch Reading Ease is both do not take into account homophones, sentence flow, proper word use, or even if it makes sense.  If you are unable to pull meaning from reading because there is nothing there and not lack of skills, then it was a waste of time.  It does not matter what number it gets.  For example, I fabricated the following to see if it mattered what I wrote to get a high score for writing.

Monotheistic governments tend to have insurmountable amounts of

antidisestablishmentarianisms to contend with this year.  Governments will communicate their assessment of the final judgment decision they comprehend for a measurable means of terminating the matter.  Leading advocates for antidisestablishmentarianism concluded that pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis is underpinning by

Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis.

All of these words are real words, but good luck finding meaning out of what I wrote. On the test provided for Microsoft Word I was able to get a score of 20.5(a great score if you are writing a college level paper right?) on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and a 0 on the Flesch Reading Ease.  When I put this into the website Blue Centauri Consulting-Writing Analyzer , I got the score of 17.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level and a -14 on the Flesch Reading Ease.  Both scores indicate if you are in college you should be able to read and understand what I just wrote, but with some difficulty.  Yet the numbers don’t match.  Does this mean that there is a discrepancy in the mathematics, decreasing the validity? Or does this mean that there is not much difference between 17 and 20?

Mary Ann Hogan writes on Knight Foundations Communication Portal states  that Flesch can not distinguish between poems and a bunch of words put together. for example

““These are the times that try men’s souls.” – Thomas Paine

(Flesch Score: 100)

The girl, water man, in a horse set grass.

(Also Flesch: 100)”


There is far more meaning, and more to analyze, within the first quote than in the second mess of words.  Can a student read or write all the words that were in both? Yes, but can they draw meaning from both? If being graded in school, would you give the two the same?  Doesn’t one show far more understanding and logic than the other? Yet they got the same score.

Here are a few other opinions from Writers Circle.  In this blog the writers discuss their own writing and where it falls in the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Tests.  One writer points out that from one chapter to the next the grade range changes.  So where does that place that book on the scale?  Another writer points out what the tests do not factor in.

So my over all question is how can we determine if someone is writing or reading up to level if the only way to measure it is to give it a number based on sentence length and word length and excluding a lot of key elements?



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  1. Another point that I might add to yours, is how often we hear validity and reliability in regards to tests. Obviously, there is very little in these two assessments of reading level. At this point, then we must question bias in the use of these tests to determine readability of a certain text.

    For example, the beloved Harry Potter novels are written by a British woman. If a student has no exposure to British vocabulary, and I said that “I liked salad cream on my crisps but not my biscuits, and had a bit of a strop because there was some,” it would rate very low on any of the reading scales (Flesch scale 0). You would still be clueless that I liked mayonaise on my potato chips but not on hard cookies, and that I threw a temper tantrum because of it (Flesch scale 9)…. Oh look, same sentence, but a higher difficulty level…

    There is great furor over bias in standardized testing, yet I have heard nothing in regards to bias when a reading scale is applied to different texts. We hear about how this book is for grades 4-7 and that book is for grade 9-12, but can we judge students using these scales, without taking into account their vocabulary life experiences? Sure, if one or two words were different, students could use context of a sentence, but if many of the sight recognition words are different they will appear as illiterate as someone without any contextual reading skills.

    Try this sentence: Over at Welly, the girls would have bloke snogging contests, and one night at the pub one of my friends won by getting off with 10 guys!

    Get your mind out of the gutter, it was a kissing contest! Flesch reading scale 9.3

  2. Thanks for your provocative post about the Flesch Score — and thanks for citing my piece “Flesch and the Common Man.” this is an important discussion to keep alive — for teachers, academics, foundation people, anyone in the world who values communication. What is it? (communication?) how tdo we DO it? Flesch is just one tool to help us move closer to an answer. Thanks again, looking forward to more.

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