The Coffey Blog

Quick and clear: Why reading levels matter

Posted on: Monday, November 19, 2018

Laurel Johnson, Associate Editor

Healthcare content is often held to strict standards when it comes to reading levels. That's usually due to state or federal rules. But what if your organization has no guidelines? It's still worthwhile to pay attention to reading levels.

Why? First, people are busy. And even highly educated folks appreciate a simple, straightforward read. Ideally they should only have to read a sentence once to fully—and quickly—understand it.

Second, plain language helps humanize doctors and other healthcare workers. Complicated concepts, jargon, and scientific language may show that doctors are experts, but at the risk of losing your audience. There's value in asking experts to break down those concepts into everyday terms people can relate to.

And then there's this: According to the National Institutes of Health, most people read at a level three to five grades lower than the last grade of school they completed. So adults with a high school diploma typically read at a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level.

The path to simpler writing

A low reading level doesn't mean leaving out key info. There are two primary ways to look at it:

  • Numbers produced by an algorithm (i.e., Flesch-Kincaid, SMOG or FOG).
  • Actual ease of reading for a human being.

Think of it like letter of the law vs. spirit of the law: It's best to balance the two. For instance, we want to educate readers. So even though "COPD" fits a lower reading level, as health educators, it's our responsibility to spell out "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease" the first time we mention it.

In cases where reading levels must meet a strict guideline, be sure to check for leeway in the rules. You might be allowed to exclude necessary long words when measuring the reading level. If you're setting the rules yourself, allow for flexibility around medical terms.

What's the reading level of this article? 7.7 (Flesch-Kincaid).

4 strategies for nailing the numbers

1. Opt for short sentences. For example: "A daily walk is a great exercise habit, and it's easy to get started" becomes "A daily walk is a great exercise habit. And it's easy to get started."

2. Use short words when possible. Say "use" instead of "utilize" and "doctor" instead of "physician," for instance. Abbreviations are useful, but beware of alphabet soup. Even short acronyms can alienate readers if they're overused.

3. Turn a long series into a bulleted list. Or try bold lead-ins with periods. Reading level formulas will see a single word with a period after it as a short sentence. That can help bring numbers down.

4. Don't overthink it. Try saying the information out loud, the way you'd explain it to a friend. And it never hurts to get a second opinion if time allows.

Writing for a low reading level gets easier with practice. It's possible to craft educational, elegant, creative copy—and make it accessible to the widest range of readers possible.

Let Coffey help you say it simply

Our team includes experts in health literacy editing. We love the challenge of taking difficult text and making it easier to read. To learn more about this service and how it can transform your health content and materials, call us at 888.805.9101 or email us.

Related posts

3 health literacy principles for healthcare marketers
How to talk medical tech—without losing readers
Interviewing doctors: How to get a great healthcare story