Calculating Readability

Bridget Gold and Rebecca Foster, Metropolitan Community College-Longview, Kansas City, MO
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this Spreadsheet Across the Curriculum activity, students will learn to calculate the readability level of a given piece of writing, according to several well-known readability formulas. They will tabulate data, translate verbal descriptions of the formulas into Excel functions, practice using correct order of operations, and use ratios.

Learning Goals

Quantitative Goals. Students work with basic arithmetic, including ratios. Additionally, they deal with order of operations, percents, and text-to-math translation.

Spreadsheet Goals. Students will build spreadsheets to work through the calculations, and to compare the results of the formulas. In the process, they will learn the importance of accuracy. They will also come to appreciate the ease and flexibility of using a spreadsheet rather than re-entering multiple calculations into a calculator.

English (Content) Goals. Students will see that basic arithmetic skills are not irrelevant to their communication skills, but can help them identify characteristics of a text that affect the readability of the text. This enables them to add quantitative skills to the other kinds of analytical tools they are more familiar with as they analyze their own and others' writing. The project gives them a foundation for considering which aspects of composition can be easily analyzed quantitatively (for example, sentence length and ease of vocabulary) and which cannot (for example, meaning and connotation).

Context for Use

This module was originally written to be used in a Learning Community linking a Beginning Algebra and an English Composition I class. (The algebra class is a developmental course.) In the Learning Community, students enroll in both courses and do a number of coordinated activities linking quantitative and verbal skills. We discovered early that students perceive the value of writing in math class fairly quickly–they may not like it, but they do see that writing about math concepts and processes helps them to understand the math more readily. However, they are much more resistant to the idea that math skills can be useful to them as writers. Many developmental algebra students not only believe, but want to continue believing, that algebra has no "real-world" applications, and that they'll "never use this stuff" outside of math classes. At the same time, many composition students believe that evaluating the effectiveness of the written word is an entirely subjective, arbitrary process, and that assessment of their writing depends on the instructor's personal tastes, friendliness toward the student, or whim. This module should demonstrate the inaccuracy of all those beliefs, and help the students begin to understand the connections between the languages of numbers and words.

We introduce the module once the relevant quantitative skills have been taught or reviewed in the algebra class. In the English class, students can be introduced to the concept that "good writing" means something more than "writing I like" and that there are standards of quality and effectiveness. While readability formulas are certainly not a panacea for writing problems, they do offer an easily accessible demonstration that some aspects of writing can be measured by objective instruments. With the foundations in place in both classes, students are ready to tackle this project.

We believe that the project can be useful in a variety of contexts other than learning communities like ours. The math skills required can reasonably be expected of college students–certainly of those beyond the developmental level. Further, the project encourages effective study skills-recognizing that different kinds of written sources may require different reading strategies. The module can be used not only in stand-alone math and English classes, but also in reading, education, critical thinking, and communications classes–anywhere that students can benefit from adding quantitative skills to their analytical toolboxes.

Description and Teaching Materials

The module is a PowerPoint presentation with embedded spreadsheets. If the embedded spreadsheets are not visible, save the PowerPoint file to disk and open it from there.

The above PowerPoint files are the student version of the module. An instructor version is available by request. The instructor version includes the completed spreadsheet. Send your request to Len Vacher ( by filling out and submitting the Instructor Module Request Form.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The module is a computer-based activity which can be done in a computer-equipped classroom or lab, or assigned as homework. It makes a good interactive classroom activity, and can be done by students individually or working in small groups.

It is useful to find out in advance how familiar students are with Excel. The module does include some help screens for working with Excel; these will be a useful aid to students whose spreadsheet experience may not be fresh. If there is a significant number of students with little or no spreadsheet experience, putting students in small groups with a spreadsheet "expert" in each group may be helpful.

Students should be reminded to save their work frequently.

The text provided for analysis in the module is an excerpt from the students' English class textbook. This particular passage, dealing with comparison and contrast as a writing and thinking strategy, was chosen because it fit well with the spreadsheet assignment as well as with upcoming work in the composition class. It can easily be replaced with a passage from anything else the instructor chooses. For the end-of-module assignments, instructors should provide passages of at least 150 words. It's useful to provide hard copies of the texts to be analyzed. Such tasks as counting words and sentences are easier with paper and pencil (although students comfortable with technology may want to copy the text into a Word or other word-processing document and let the word processor do the counting).


The last slide in the module is a set of end-of-module assignments. These are designed to help students demonstrate their understanding of the quantitative skills involved, to increase their familiarity with using spreadsheets, to prompt them to write about their learning, and to help them think about the wider implications of the project. (Even if the module itself is done in groups, the end-of-module assignments are intended to be completed individually.)

The first end-of-module assignment requires students to repeat the activity using other sources (which should be provided by the instructor) and a sample of their own writing. This should reinforce the learning and show them how it can be used outside the module. The second and third assignments are intended to help students analyze the process and the results. Assignments 4-6 reinforce the quantitative skills used in the activity, and question 7 should lead them into thinking about the scope and limitations of readability formulas.

The instructor version of the module contains a slide that can be used for pre- and post-testing.

References and Resources

The passage analyzed in the module is taken from

Axelrod, Rise B. and Charles R. Cooper. "Comparing and Contrasting." The St. Martin's Guide to Writing, 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008, 664.

Material on readability formulas is widely available both in print and on the internet, particularly since the three formulas we have chosen are widely used. The sources listed below may be helpful for those seeking further information.

Caylor, John S. and Thomas G. Sticht. "Development of a Simple Readability Index for Job Reading Material." Paper presented to the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1973. Education Resources Information Center.

Flesch, Rudolf. The Art of Readable Writing With the Flesch Readability Formula. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Gunning, Robert. The Techniques of Clear Writing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952.