What does Reading Level have to do with Racism and Equity?

As the Web Services Librarian, I play an important role in determining the standards for content on the Boston Public Library website. The blogs are some of the most important content I oversee. They’re important because they let library workers talk about things they and their patrons care about. I think that connection to the public is special and needs to be protected.

As a part of the annual training bloggers go through, I remind them to keep their posts to a 10th grade reading level or below (ideally 8th grade). The few exceptions are on a case-by-case basis. However, staff members come back to me and say that the requirement is too restrictive, and what’s the big deal anyway?

When you don’t consider the reading level of your content, you are shutting out people who don’t read at the same level as you. Those people will most likely include, but are not limited to:

  • People of color
  • People who are poor
  • People with learning disabilities
  • People who don’t speak English as their first language

TL;DR: The reading level of your content is a racism and equity issue. If you’re not thinking about the reading levels of your content, you are preventing large groups of disadvantaged people from reading it. About half of adults in the U.S. do not read above an eighth grade reading level, and you are excluding them. Use hemingwayapp.com to help you reduce the reading level of your content.

As a public library, we serve all of the citizens of Massachusetts. Most of the staff members I work with, including myself, are librarians. This means they have a Master’s degree. They mainly work with other librarians. When that happens, it’s easy to forget you’re inside a bubble of higher education and there are people out there who don’t have the same educational experiences as you do. When bloggers complain about reading level, I tell them that I want their blog post to be as successful as possible. To me, that means making sure people aren’t turning away from the post because they find it hard to read. This is especially important if education is part of your organization’s mission.

Let me provide an example of what I mean from Patricia Nelson Limerick. She is talking about scholarly research, which not what this post is about, but the same principles apply:

“In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:

               Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying.

               Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly.

               But in scholarly writing [or any writing] in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:

               Reader: I cannot understand what you are saying.

               Academic Writer: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.”

No one wants to admit that they don’t know what the author is talking about. They are afraid they will be told they don’t understand because they are not smart enough. So, instead of getting feedback from our users when they can’t understand something, we just lose them.

Equity and Reading Levels

So, let’s bring this back to what this has to do with racism and equity. We know that education is a problem in this country. We know that people of color and people with lower incomes don’t have equal access to education and resources needed to succeed. This is not their fault; it is a reality of our current situation.

Race

In Massachusetts, “fewer than 1 in 3 Black or Latino 4th grade students are on grade level in reading – half the rate of the state’s White residents.” These educational gaps don’t seem to disappear with age. The same report found that “fewer than 1 in 3 Black or Latino students who take the SAT meet college-readiness bench marks in reading and math-compared to 2/3 of their white peers.” We can see here that Black and Hispanic Massachusetts residents are less likely to be reading at grade level. This then turns into many students of color not enrolling in college at all. The message here is that at every point in their life, Black and Latino students are less likely to read at the grade level of their White peers.

It’s not just a problem in Massachusetts. Nationally only 18% of Black 4th grade students score as proficient or above in reading level, compared to 45% for White students.

When we post content that is above the reading level of our users, we are telling them that this content is not for them. We are telling them that what we have to say can only be said to those who can read at this level. Even though the intention is not to exclude people of color, it does.

Income

Similarly, we know that poor families don’t have the same educational opportunities as wealthy families. While minorities are more likely to be poor, there are plenty of poor White children in this country too. One of the ways to see how income affects education is to look at the performance of students who have subsidized school lunch versus those who don’t. 8th graders that qualify for a subsidized meal score are about 2 grade levels in math and reading behind 8th graders who do not qualify for subsidized lunch.

There are approximately 51 million children attending public school in the United States right now. Of those 51 million, about 30 million children receive free or reduced lunches. Studies show that educational gaps that exist for children do not close as they get older and become adults. Using those numbers, about 60% of adults likely do not read at the same grade level as those who did not grow up in poor households.

We can’t assume that our users will meet us where we are. When we don’t think about their needs, we ignore them. This only continues the cycle of preventing these users from getting access to quality resources because of their financial background.

Learning/Reading Disabilities

People with learning and reading disabilities can have difficulty with reading at a typical pace, understanding what they read, and recalling accurately what they read. These disabilities include dyslexia, those on the Autism spectrum, and many more. 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and attention issues such as dyslexia and ADHD. And the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities in high school is nearly three times the rate of all students.

There are a wide variety of conditions that fall into this category. Because of this, it’s hard to provide concrete numbers about reading levels to apply to the group as a whole. But, we know these disabilities can affect reading comprehension and attention span. I think it’s safe to say that the easier content is to read, the easier it will be for someone with a learning disability to focus on and comprehend. The higher dropout rate also indicates that users with learning disabilities may not have achieved the higher levels of education and reading associated with grades 10-12.

Simple sentences are easier to read. If you write in simple sentences, your content will have a lower reading level. In high school, I was taught that it’s better to write complex sentences. But, that’s not fair to the many users out there who have more difficulty following along.

English as an Other Language

As of 2016, 35 million adults, or 15% of the U.S. population, speak a language other than English at home. Approximately 40% of non-English speakers (ages 5+) do not have English proficiency. Researchers found that on average, adult non-native English speakers in an English speaking country know about 10-20,000 fewer words than adult native English speakers. This is about the vocabulary of an 8-14 year old native English speaker.

This is another group that’s difficult to have hard numbers on, since the levels of English proficiency vary so much. Your audience might include non-native English speakers. Non-native English speakers are less likely to know bigger vocabulary words that a native English speaker does. Be aware of these words and use simpler alternatives to reduce reading levels on your content.

Solutions

I’ve pointed out populations that are less likely to read above an 8th grade reading level. Hopefully, at this point in this post, you’ve realized that this includes a large part of the U.S. population. I have found that the easiest way to reduce the reading level of your writing is to break up your sentences. It’s actually pretty simple, and it makes your writing easier to read.

For tools to help with this, I recommend Hemingwayapp.com. The web version is free, so that’s what I use. Like many other tools, Hemingway App uses an algorithm to determine reading level, which can be problematic. There are some things that it flags as problems, when they’re not. But the reason why I use it is that it highlights and color codes what it thinks are problems, so I can make that determination for myself. You can see what it looks like in the image below:

Screenshot of hemingwayapp.com. The items it thinks are problematic are highlighted in different colors, depending on the problem. Blue indicates adverbs, green indicates passive voice, purple indicates that there's a simpler alternative to a phrase, yellow means the sentence is hard to read, and red means the sentence is very hard to read.
HemingwayApp.com

I could go on about reading levels and equity, but I think I’ve made my point. What you think of as normal writing, could be too difficult to understand for someone in your audience who doesn’t have your educational background.

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