February 17, 2018 10:22 pm

Norman Eng


I write like a fifth grader. And I’m proud of it.

I probably shouldn’t be, being in academia and all. But one thing sales copywriters get that professors often don’t: The harder you make it for audiences to “get” what you’re saying, the less likely they’ll buy into it.

Students are no different. Yes, they’re in college. Yes, they’re supposed to think at a higher level. But they have jobs. Siblings to take care of. A burgeoning social life. Extracurricular activities.

So don’t make it harder for busy students to understand you. Have you ever thought about the words in your lecture, your syllabus, or your assignments?

If not, then start by figuring out your F-K score.

The Flesch-Kincaid score shows what grade level you’re writing at. A score of 12 means you’re writing at a 12th grade reading level. If your score is 14, you’re writing at college level.

It’s calculated by words per sentence, syllables per word, and a few other factors. The New York Times, for instance, is written at a 10th grade reading level.

The lower the score, the easier your writing is to understand.

So, what level should you be at? That’s debatable, but I recommend 8th grade or lower, which is where most Americans are at. Chances are, they’ll more likely read, understand, and/or share your writing.

Look at Pulitzer- and Nobel-Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. His timeless novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was written at a 4th grade level. Yet it was powerful enough to shape 20th century fiction.

One of the top-ranked articles on LinkedIn was written by Gretchen Rubin, author of a New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. Her article scored at a fifth-grade level.

Of course, there are plenty of “advanced” books that do well too. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is written at an 11th grade level. But today’s millennial generation, who grew up on the internet, are scanning for information. They’re not reading books cover to cover. If your message doesn’t grab them, they tune out.

So let’s test your writing.

Copy and paste a few paragraphs from one of your writing assignments into the website below:


It’ll spit out your readability level, by grade.

The details of my fieldwork assignment from this term scored at a 5th grade level. Same with this very article.

Just for fun, I took five recent research articles from the online science journal, PLOS One. I know the audience is different, but it can be telling. The readability level? 17.7. That’s graduate level stuff.

No wonder the general public ignores what scholars say. Well, to be honest, there are many reasons why, but writing in “academese” probably doesn’t help.

The reality is, the masses gravitate to messages they understand quickly, according to marketing consultant Donald Miller. Like Barack Obama’s message when he ran for president in 2008 (“hope”). Like Donald Trump’s message in 2016 (“make America great again”). Same with George H.W. Bush in the 1980s (“No new taxes”).

But does anyone remember what the losing presidential candidates stood for? Like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush? Probably not.

Now, I know. The F-K index will likely draw the ire of the academic community, because it seems to suggest we dumb things down, right?

Maybe it’s time we really think about communicating clearly and simply. Not just as researchers, but as teachers. That starts by removing any “friction” in our writing—the big words, the abstract language. That’ll go a long way in engaging students.

I’d love to hear about your F-K score, and how it may help your teaching.

  • I tested one of my assignments – a paper assignment – and it came back at 8th grade level. Might try to make it even easier to understand. I’ve been really thinking about simplifying my communication both in writing and lecturing. Thanks for the article!

  • No problem! I’m religiously thinking of ways to make my writing accessible to my audiences–whether readers, students, or researchers.

  • This is a great tool! Thanks! It is important to expand students’ vocabulary…one of the comments I often get on my teaching evals is appreciation from students for introducing them to new words…but I am intentional about it. I ask them to keep a list of words I use that they don’t know. I am willing to stop mid-lecture to define a word. We talk about the etiology of words. But I don’t want them to struggle to understand their assignments! It is hard enough to get quality work without them having to guess what I want from them!

  • I submitted something in French (my teaching subject) that I had written for my high schoolers; it came back as anywhere from 9-11th grade level depending on the scale used. Given that those are the grades I teach, I think I’m on target. Aren’t we supposed to be using language that is sometimes challenging – so they acquire advanced vocabulary – as well as being comprehensible? I would argue that we can do both. Thanks for your interesting posts – keep up the good work!

    • For me, writing like a 5th grader is more than just being comprehensible (which ironically might suggest my writing could have been clearer!). Writing simply can often incite action. For example, the posts that are shared online the most are often the ones that are written simply (i.e., easy to get–and of course has something meaningful to say). That’s why protest slogans like, “Hell no we won’t go!” or advertising taglines like Nike’s “Just Do It” or promises like “Read my lips: No new taxes!” moves people to action (protesting, buying/exercising, voting, etc.). I guess that was my real point behind this post. Being comprehensible is a given, but moving others? The evidence suggests that being simple does that better than being dense and clear. Thoughts?

  • I just wrote something off-the cuff and did not review it. It came back 11th to 12th grade level. I’m going to review it and see how I could simplify things just a tad.

    • Siam, I hope this test was helpful; more importantly that it helps you reflect on how you communicate—to students and your other audiences!

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