Successful Web Content: What Reading Levels Should You Aim for?

Successful Web Content: What Reading Levels Should You Aim for?

by | Apr 11, 2014 | Website Content

Are you speaking to your readers on their level, or are you going over (or under) their heads?

Without understanding what grade level to write online content in for different target audiences, your words will not have the hoped-for impact.

Instead, your readers will get bored, confused, annoyed, or all three – exactly what you don’t want to happen.

what grade level to write online content in

What’s the Most Common Reading Level for Adults?

Before we dive into what reading levels to write your online content in, we need to establish a base of knowledge.

First off, what is the reading level of an average adult?

While adult reading levels vary, it’s helpful to know the average – especially if you don’t know your own audience’s level yet.

According to a rigorous literacy study, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) published by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average prose adult literacy level is basic to intermediate.

  • In 2003, 29% of American adults tested at a basic level.
  • Another 44% of adults tested at an intermediate level.

When you have “prose literacy,” you have the skills and knowledge you need to comprehend, use, and search information from continuous texts (e.g. novels, textbooks, papers, essays, and other long works).

  • Having basic prose literacy means a person has the skills to perform simple literary activities. For example, they can read and understand short texts and simple documents and locate easy-to-find information to solve simple problems.
  • Having intermediate prose literacy means a person can perform literary activities that are moderately challenging. They have higher-level reading and analysis skills and can sift through denser texts to find meaning and solve problems.

So, what are the equivalent reading grade levels?

Let’s begin with one startling fact: 50% of American adults are unable to read a book written at an 8th-grade level. (That’s not to say they can’t read it, period. They can probably read some words and some sentences, but the larger ideas and themes won’t connect. That’s because the continuum of reading comprehension will be interrupted and fragmented.)

When we compare prose literacy levels with a system like the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Levels, they match up how you’d expect:

Most adults fall in the “average” range, which spans from 6th to 12th-grade reading levels. In other words, most adults can read books like Harry Potter or Jurassic Park and understand them without any problems.

So, if you haven’t figured out your audience’s average reading level, a good base to start from with your content is indeed on the lower end of average – about an 8th-grade reading level.

Improving your content's readability is beyond writing what works for the majority. Here's @JuliaEMcCoy's guide on how you can find the right grade level to write your online content in. ✍ Click To Tweet

How to Know What Grade Level to Write Online Content in for Maximum Readability

So, now you know the average reading grade level for most adults. But, what about YOUR audience?

Your brand audience may have a reading level on par with most adults, or it could differ a lot. Here’s how to know what grade level to write online content in for YOUR specific set of readers.

1. Match Your Content to Your Audience

Before you do anything else, get to know your audience. You have to find out who these people are to know the best reading level to write in FOR them. Find out details like:

  • Their level of education
  • Their profession and job description
  • Their interests and hobbies

Matching your content to your audience is essential for your words to make an impact.

  • Dumb it down too much, and you risk insulting their intelligence or boring them.
  • Make it too high-brow or intellectual/formal, and you risk losing them from confusion or incomprehension.

No matter the audience you’re writing for, hitting the right balance is tricky. However, the better you know them, the better off you’ll be.

2. Use Your Audience’s Vocabulary

Vocabulary and word choice are two big factors that determine reading grade level.

For example, does your audience prefer well-worded content? Or do they need it simple and clear?

It’s the difference between using words like “elementary” vs. “basic,” or “intellectual” vs. “smart” in your content.

Another thing: Will your audience understand your use of technical industry terms, or do you need to simplify those words for general understanding?

E.g., if you run a marketing agency for small businesses, you wouldn’t want to use marketing jargon in your content – that’s your expertise, not your clients’. If you DO need to use specialized terms like “brand awareness” or “marketing segments,” for example, you’d need to define or explain them.

The best way forward here is to always use your audience’s vocabulary:

  • Research what they say and how they say it – this is easily done by analyzing at their social media profiles, posts, and comments.
  • You can also check Quora and Answer the Public for how they word questions about your topic area.

3. Remember You’re Writing for the Web

No matter who makes up your target audience, you must always remember you’re writing content for the web.

People read and interact with electronic text differently than they do with printed text. This table from Writing Cooperative shows what I mean:

  • With printed text, the average reader will read from top to bottom. There’s no skipping around.
  • With online text, the average reader will read it piece-meal or skip around. They’ll scroll until something catches their eye or skim the headings of a content piece rather than read it through 100%.

A study from Sumo backs this up. They discovered the average online reader will only read about 20% of your blog or article.

This is a frustrating reality of online writing, but not all hope is lost. There are actions you can take to encourage your readers to read ALL of your words on a page.

How do you know the right reading grade level for your audience? First of all, get to know your audience and speak like them, but make sure your content is well formatted to be easy to read on the web. ‍ Read more tips on this post. Click To Tweet

How to Improve the Readability of Your Content

These tips are especially helpful if you are unintentionally writing at a level way too high (read: too academic or too formal) for your audience. They’re also good if you need to improve your online writing skills and learn tactics to engage internet readers better.

1. Write Shorter Sentences

Contrary to what you might think, using shorter sentences will not dumb down your content. Instead, it will make it more readable.

Sentences that drag on… and on… and on… are harder to read on a screen. They tend to make your mind wander and your eyes hurt because there aren’t any pauses. Hence, your eyes play hopscotch on the page rather than continuing in a linear fashion.

An easy way to do it: Look for the coordinating conjunctions in your sentences – and, but, for, nor, and so – because these tend to join two independent thoughts together. Delete them and add a period.

E.g., “She knew it was going to be a rainy day, but she didn’t want to bring an umbrella.”

Remove the conjunction, add a period. The sentence becomes “She knew it was going to be a rainy day. She didn’t want to bring an umbrella.”

No meaning is lost, and the sentence isn’t dumbed down. It’s just shorter!

2. Use Less-Complex Versions of Common Words

If you’re writing for an average reader, skip the words that over-complicate your ideas.

One major example: “Utilize” vs. “use.”

They mean the EXACT same thing, but one is simpler and clearer.

Look at the difference:

“She wanted to utilize her knowledge.”

“She wanted to use her knowledge.”

See what I mean?

3. Make Paragraphs Shorter

Another great way to increase the readability of your online content is to shorten your paragraphs.

Shorter paragraphs naturally keep your eyes moving down, line by line. Whether it’s due to our natural curiosity or some other factor, it works.

For example, use one-line paragraphs to pull your readers’ eyes down the page. These are called “bucket brigades” (Brian Dean explains them really well in his SEO copywriting article).

  • Use one-line paragraphs and bucket brigades in your intro to grab attention.
  • Use them to emphasize important points, facts, or ideas in the body of your piece, too.
  • For example, after some longer paragraphs that are explain-y, use some bucket brigades to break up the rhythm of the piece and keep your reader interested.

4. Include Lots of Headings

Headings are a godsend for online writing.

  • They break up the text into orderly, logical chunks.
  • They make the text easy to scan and find the information you want.
  • They help readers make sense of the text.

As a general rule, add a heading whenever you introduce a new facet or branch of your topic. Use them liberally versus sparingly, especially if your piece is long.

Don’t forget to tag your headings appropriately and make them stand out from the body text. In WordPress, there’s a dropdown menu that lets you apply headings to text, including formatting:

Some other heading tips:

  • H1 should only be used once – for your headline/title.
  • H2s are for major subtopics within your content piece.
  • H3s break down facets of your subtopic(s).
  • H4s further help break down points inside your H3s.

Image: BloggingWizard

5. Use the Tools at Your Disposal

Tons of tools exist on the web that can help refine the readability of your online text. My favorites:

  • Hemingway Editor has a built-in readability score. It also shows where you’re being unnecessarily wordy – a giant help for cutting down sentences and improving clarity.
  • Readable works similarly but scores your text against several readability algorithms so you get a bunch of different scores, plus a grade from Readable’s proprietary scoring system. It also points out the hard-to-read text so you can refine it.
  • Microsoft Word has a reading score tool built in. To use it, just go to Review >> Spelling & Grammar. Go through the spell-check. When it’s finished, the final screen will display lots of extra information about your text, including the various readability scores.

6. Get Feedback

Nothing beats the human eye when you’re trying to assess the readability of a text.

To that end, enlist an editor, proofreader, or a trusted friend to read your content for clarity and readability. Ask them to specifically judge the clarity of your content and how easy it is to read.

Use this as your last check before hitting “publish.” Keep your editor’s comments in mind for the future and use them to further hone your writing.

How do you improve the readability of your content? ‍ Write shorter sentences, use simpler, commonly used words, write shorter paragraphs, add lots of headings, use readability tools, and get feedback. - @JuliaEMcCoy. Click To Tweet

For What Grade Level Should You Write Online Content? It Depends

The average adult reads at an 8th-grade level, but that doesn’t mean you should write to that level.

Your audience will be the last word on the reading level you aim to hit.

Do thorough research to get to know them, then write accordingly. Don’t forget to infuse your content with best practices for online writing and reading on screens.

Once you write to your audience in a way that’s totally tailored to them, your content will start making the impact you’ve been hoping for. Here’s to better content that moves people in ways you never imagined!