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Monday, January 02, 2006

The Principles of Readablility

Here is a link about Bible Translation Reading Levels.

I should mention that any reading level indicator is only a relative measure. What actual grade level the text is and by how much it is more difficult than the next text is highly debatable. However, the relative reading levels should be reliable. For comparison sake, the John Grisham novel that I read a few days ago is rated at a grade 5 reading level. This in part reflects the difference between a teacher supported level and an independent level. Generally we want to, at least, have a Bible at the grade 5 - 6 level or lower and here is why.

The Priniciples of Readability by William H. Dubay. 2004.

Donald Murphy (1947), the editor of Wallace’s Farmer, used a split run with an article written at the 9th-grade level on one run and on at the 6th-grade level on the other run. He found that increasing readability increased readership up of the article 18 percent.

In a second test, he took great care not to change anything except readability, keeping headlines, illustrations, subject matter and the position the same. He found readership increases of 45% for an article on nylon and 60% for an article on corn.

Wilbur Schramm (1947) showed that a readable style contributes to the readers’ perseverance, also called depth or persistence, the tendency to keep reading the text.

Charles E. Swanson (1948) showed that better readability increases reading perseverance as much as 80 percent. He developed an easy version of a story with 131 syllables per 100 words and a hard version with 173 syllables and distributed each to 125 families. A survey of readers taken 30 hours after distribution showed a gain in the easier version over the hard version of 93% of total paragraphs read, 83% in mean number of paragraphs read, and 82% in the number of correspondents reading every paragraph.

Bernard Feld (1948) grouped 101 stories from the Birmingham News into those with high Flesch scores, requiring 9th-grade education or more and those with low scores, requiring less than 9th-grade education. He found readership differences of 20 to 75 percent favoring the low-score versions. Feld’s findings indicated that even a small actual percentage gain for a large-circulation paper greatly increased the number of readers.

That is the kind of study that has influenced translators to reduce the reading level of the Bible. Were they right? You be the judge.


At Mon Jan 02, 08:56:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I think they are right, Suzanne. Studies have shown that most Americans and Brits (I don't know about your countryfolk!) read at about a 5-6 level. It's actually a comfortable reading level for me. Reader's Digest is probably at that level.

What some people may not realize is that content and reading level are two very distinct parameters. It is possible to write about something fairly complex, including, for instance, many of Paul's arguments in his epistles, but put it at a 5-6 grade reading level. It is still complex in content, just more suited to the reading level of the majority of English speakers.

At Mon Jan 02, 10:41:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

I wonder if it is technically correct to say that these studies correlate with Relevance Theory? (Not that Suzanne has said this; I'm suggesting it.)

If the readability is low, then the cost of processing the code on the page would be high. Statistically, fewer people would make the additional effort to interpret the content. Therefore, people would not make the effort to continue reading. Nor would they make the effort to understand it.

I guess what I'm wondering is whether Relevance Theory is content oriented or can it be (or should it be) thought of as including readability.

At Mon Jan 02, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Can some of you linguists make a guess at what the readability level of the original documents would have been? I'd be interested to know (and to know if there is any way of knowing, for that matter!!!).

Tim (Chesterton)

At Mon Jan 02, 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Mike,

I am pretty sure that the original document I linked to by Dubay deals with this aspect.


Grade 5 - 6 sounds about right to me.

At Mon Jan 02, 12:36:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


First, literacy was a very different actitvity in NT times. No such thing as individual silent reading. Group participation reading, reading out loud, choral reading, being read to, etc.

Second, prior knowledge is the real catch. Was the vocabulary familiar or not? Here is an example that caught me up. I somehow think that the word 'ethné' for nations, or 'nations other than Israel', was a simple, easily understood word. Now think about 'Gentiles'. I looked that up in the dictionary yesterday. It seems to me to be an obscure, and not very nice word.

Of course, it is simply a Latin cognate for 'people', and I knew this in the back of my mind, but I still don't like to read the Bible with the obscure term 'Gentiles' in it. It just sounds out of place to me, and I had to stop and think about it. But that word in Greek, 'ethné' sounds completely everyday. The word 'Gentiles' surely must occur today only in the Bible.

At Mon Jan 02, 02:33:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Suzanne, good example, and not one I would have thought of. Does it work the other way around, sometimes, though? Do we sometimes read 'ethné' translated as 'nations' and not get the point that it is the pagan nations who are in view? It took me years of reading the parable of the Sheep and the Goats before I realised that this was the meaning of 'the nations' who were gathered before the king. (Does the REB/NEB tradition actually use 'the pagans' sometimes to translate 'ethné'? It sticks in my memory that it does).

Tim C.

At Mon Jan 02, 05:25:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

William H. DuBay says on page 29:

     Woern (1977) later showed that prior knowledge and beliefs about the world affected comprehension significantly.

I've also wondered to what extent the modern lack of understanding of truth has debilitated the comprehension ability.

And I'm not referring to a modernity or post-modernity definition of truth, either. That is, I am not referring to some kind of Christian definition of truth to be distinguished from other definitions. I hold to a view of truth such that it is perfectly coherent and when considered as a whole, there is only one.

For example, I teach students whose world-view is almost totally sewn with a pure-chance fabric. They have substantial difficulty piecing related data together. That should make sense since if everything has been fitted together by pure chance then there is no coherent ties holding everything together. If you're familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, the students have great difficulty rising above the first level. It's this type of thing I'm thinking of. Within their view of the world, they don't view information as coherent; therefore, comprehension is difficult for them.


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