Research into the readability of text tries to quantify how effective a piece of written language is in communicating a message to the audience and to understand what makes some texts more difficult than others.
Macquarie University’s research team is refining our understanding of language using advanced computational methods and innovative studies into comprehension of technical terms. This research will yield a more complete understanding of how to remove barriers to comprehension and improve access to vital information for all Australians.
What is readability?
Studies assessing readability from a linguistic standpoint date back to the early 1920s.
Researchers focused on simple metrics of textual difficulty such as word length, familiarity and repetition. These metrics were used to create what we now recognise as the ‘reading age’ scale.
But a passage of text and its intended audience are multifaceted and interlinked – it is not possible to study one without the other.
Text is traditionally broken down into a hierarchy of parts for analysis:
Audience engagement and understanding of text may be influenced by several factors:
Both the text and its readers need to be taken into account when considering readability.
New research at Macquarie University is investigating how more complex aspects of written text can play a significant role in readability.
Word familiarity is important, and the frequency of ‘key’ words and terms in technical writing can provide a measure of readability.
Lexical density – how many ‘content’ words are in a text relative to the ‘function’ words – can also affect readability. Text and speech tend to become denser as they become more formal or technical. Researchers can use lexical density to identify subgenres of text type.
Using more sophisticated computer programming and larger datasets of terms, it should be possible to develop more expansive readability checkers that account for these complexities.