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Monday, August 08, 2005

ESV readability levels

The ESV Bible blog has posted readability levels for the ESV. They have even posted reading levels for each book of the ESV. The readability levels were determined using the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level algorithms within Microsoft Word. Overall, the results posted are:
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 74.9
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.4
As we have previously blogged, there are significant deficiencies within such tests for determining truly accurate reading levels, the tests can give approximate ideas of reading difficulty for a document. The F-K test primarily measures sentence length and some fairly primitive syntactic complexity, such as amount of usage of passive sentences. Especially in the case of documents which are not written in contemporary English, the F-K results can be quite misleading. Such is the case for the ESV which has a great deal of non-English syntax, obsolete words, and obscure wordings. The F-K test does not detect any of these problems in a document to be able to adjust the displayed reading level to reflect the greater reading difficulty there is when reading a text such as the ESV which is not written in contemporary English.

Grade-level 7 is an appropriate level for the ESV translation team to aim for, for the audience which it seems to be targeting. I have estimated in a previous post that the ESV reading level is probably closer to grade 10, if we properly adjust for the added difficulty of the problems in the English wordings which cannot be detected by a primitive test such as Flesch-Kincaid.

I would continue to encourage the ESV team to interact with a number of nationally recognized English scholars who can give a more accurate assessment of the quality of English in the ESV, based on their knowledge of contemporary English syntax and vocabulary, as well as different kinds of English literary style. It was good that the ESV team had one literary stylist, Dr. Ryken, on its team, but Dr. Ryken personally prefers an older style of English for Bible reading. The Fleshch-Kincaid test was not designed to work with English from older periods of our language. The ESV also needs input from English scholars who can recognize good quality contemporary literary English and can apply their insights to the ESV text. We must remember that not everyone who reads the ESV has the same affection for outdated English syntax, such as the inverted negatives which are replete within the ESV (e.g. "Judge not, that you be not judged." Matt. 7:1, which is 1750 A.D. English, rather than English syntax after 1750 which calls for "Do not judge, so that you are not judged."), or its obsolete or high register vocabulary.

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