Messing with the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test

If you have just written an essay or story on Microsoft Word, you can go to Word Options -> Proofing -> When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, and check the show readability statistics. The next time you spell-check your document (F7), a window will pop up. Notice the following:

The Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch-Kincaid grade level indicate exactly what they say. Reading ease is a score out of 100. The lower the score, the harder it is for the average person to read the document. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level represents the number of years required to comprehend the text.

Now, you might be wondering, “how in the world does my computer come up with these numbers?” Like any operation on your computer, it processes your document through an algorithm, and spits out a number. There are several variables used in determining the grade level of a document. Let’s take a look at the formula:

To break this formula down, let me explain it in words. There are three variables that determine a document’s grade level: total number of words, total number of sentences, and total number of syllables. We see two fractions in the formula: total words over total sentences, and total syllables over total words. The larger the numerators (and/or smaller the denominators) of these fractions, the higher the grade level, and vice versa.

With that being said, we can artificially inflate a document’s reading level by making the terms in the parentheses as big as possible. If we use long sentences in a document, even run on sentences, like this one that I am typing right now, the grade level will go up, especially when you use repeated sentences, and your document turns out as a bunch of words compressed into a few sentences. It is also creditable to exploit lengthened words and esoteric vocabulary as an expedient of magnifying the lexical complexity of a sentence. In other words, since vocab words tend to have many syllables per word (e.g. polysyllabic), using lots of vocabulary words in your sentences will increase the grade level.

As a concrete example, we examine a paragraph from an essay:

Yesterday I looked through my old pictures stashed in a dusty bin, strewn on the floor before me. That my childhood should be reduced to a bunch of images on glossy 4″ x 5″ paper, the ones I could harness together from the top of my dusty shelf, reminded me of how quickly the past slips away when you. I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes, trying to recall some of the happy memories in those pictures. When I opened my eyes a few minutes later, the track lighting on my ceiling suddenly seemed to blind me, and I winced away in pain.

Running this through the algorithm, we get a grade level of 10.3. Let’s combine some sentences together, or rather, make the essay into one, long, unintelligible sentence:

Yesterday I looked through my old pictures stashed in a dusty bin, strewn on the floor before me, thinking about how my childhood should be reduced to a bunch of images on glossy 4″ x 5″ paper, the ones I could harness together from the top of my dusty shelf, reminded me of how quickly the past slips away when you, while I was laying down on my bed and closing my eyes, trying to recall some of the happy memories in those pictures, when I opened my eyes a few minutes later, the track lighting on my ceiling suddenly seemed to blind me, and I winced away in pain.

In fact, when I put this into Word, it told me “Long sentence (Consider revising).” Word, you are too right. And, whoa, the grade level is all of a sudden a 43.1! That’s about a 400% increase.

Let’s up the ante. This “sentence” shall now become a “word”:

YesterdayIlookedthroughmyoldpicturesstashedinadustybinstrewnonthefloorbeforemethinkingabouthowmychildhoodshouldbereducedtoabunchofimagesonglossyfourbyfivepapertheonesIcouldharnesstogetherfromthetopofmydustyshelfremindedmeofhowquicklythepastslipsawaywhenyouwhileIwaslayingdownonmybedandclosingmyeyestryingtorecallsomeofthehappymemoriesinthosepictureswhenIopenedmyeyesafewminuteslaterthetracklightingonmyceilingsuddenlyseemedtoblindmeandIwincedawayinpain.

Now, after you say that in one breath, you’ll be no less surprised to find that the grade level is now a 374.2. Know any 380-year-olds, anyone?

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