The Reading Level of Your Readers

ErnestHemingway

As a blogger, I am kind of guessing about who are my readers. I know where they come from geographically and I know how they find me in a search and what articles they read and other analytics. I don't know what their reading level might be and every writing course will tell you that you "need to know your audience."

I make some assumptions that readers of a blog about technology and learning are mostly educators and so I further assume that they have a high school and above reading level. But how do you determine the reading level o what you are writing?

If you write in Microsoft Word, it is simple to use two major readability tests that are built-in: the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

For the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level statistics to come up in the “Spelling & Grammar” review of your content, you will need to enable those statistics. To do this select “File” then “Options” next go to the “Proofing” tab and check the box that says “Show readability statistics.”

Flesch-Kincaid scores are readability tests designed to show how easy or difficult a text is to read. This score is given in two different ways. First is the “Flesch Reading Ease” number which ranges from 0 to 100. With a score of 90-100, your writing could be understood by an average 11-year old and a score of 60-70 could be understood by average 13 to 15-year olds. A score of zero to 30 means your writing could be understood by a university graduate.  A bit counterintuitively, the higher the score the easier the writing is to read and comprehend.

For comparison, Time magazine averages at a score of 52 and the Harvard Law Review falls somewhere in the low 30s.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level applies a reading grade level to your writing. I learned many years ago that most general news articles in The New York Times have a tenth-grade reading level. Romance novels have about a fifth-grade reading level. 

I ran a recent article here through the test and got the results shown below. The Reading Ease score is about 55 and a Grade Level a tenth-grader in the middle of sophomore year. 

readability statsYou might think that score seems to be low for a post I am aiming at educators, but many sources will recommend that ease of reading in order to boost your numbers and even in your emails and communications. I know that some researchers have said that your response rate varies by reading level. The article linked here claims that emails written at a 3rd-grade reading level were optimal with a 36% boost over emails written at a college reading level and a 17% higher response rate than emails written even at a high school reading level.

When Microsoft Outlook and Word finish checking the spelling and grammar, you can choose to display information about the reading level of the document using the Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. You can also set your proofreading settings to flag things like jargon, which is often what pushes ease aside and pushes readers to leave.

This may sound like advice to "dumb down" your writing. I don't think it is that. The English major part of me is reminded of Ernest Hemingway's journalistic simplicity. You can still get across deep ideas in simple language. I like the Einstein quote “Everything should be made as simple as possible,
but not simpler.” 

Mentoring High School and College Students

NJIT campusAbout 58% of college students now get their degrees within 6 years. When I was presented with a statistic like that during a campus tour with my son, I thought the percentage seemed low, but the admissions people were clearly proud of their number. What happened to graduating college in four years? Four years was the standard when I attended college a half-century ago.

The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3%. The six-year rate is 57.6%. At private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8%, and 65.4% earn a degree in six years.

The difference between public and private schools probably has to do with the smaller numbers of students and greater availability to counseling and mentoring. There's not much a student or parent can do about what services are available on campus (other than complain) but I have found a way that a student can get a college mentor.

UStrive is a free virtual mentoring platform that was launched in 2015. They can introduce both high school and college students to verified mentors. A mentor should be able to help guide a student through the college admissions process and the work with them to set and achieve their educational and career goals.

I learned about it because NJIT has a partnership with Strive for College that allows students to participate in a free pilot program over the next year aimed at helping them complete their courses, earn a degree and prepare for living-wage careers after college.

Strive for College was founded in 2007 by Michael J. Carter to help acutely under-served area high school students apply to college and navigate financial aid. At the start, college students volunteered as in-person mentors for high school students, and mentored students achieved substantially better college go-on rates than their non-mentored peers. Strive for College grew to allow students to select a volunteer mentor from companies (such as American Express, Deloitte and EY) to work one-on-one with a student.

Mentoring can help a college student choose courses, fill out the FAFSA, pursue scholarships, and identify career options based on skills and strengths.

Getting mentoring at the high school level may be one way to improve that 4-year graduation rate. Some students get a jump on college graduation by taking AP classes, doing Dual Credit courses, or taking the CLEP exam in order to earn college credits in high school. High school counselors can be aided by college mentors and those mentors might follow the student into their college years.

There are other ways to find a mentor - friends, family, school counselors - but won't work for everyone. Using a matching service like UStrive can help make that transition from high school to college. Students find a verified mentor that attended a particular college or majored in something that you find interesting or are planning to major in yourself. This platform offers real-time chat with the mentor over messaging, video, or phone calls. Students pick a topic to work on with the mentor, and the platform provides information about each step of the journey. For a high school student, admissions and applications would be the start. For a college student, choosing a major and courses might be the starting place. 

Should Teachers and Students Be Looping?

Infinite loop

 

Here's an idea from aasa.org:

"Imagine you had to begin each school year with a brand new staff.

Every year, every professional and every support specialist working in your school had begun his or her first year there. Every principal, teacher, custodian and food service worker wouldn’t know the routines, the curriculum or the procedures you expected them to follow.

There would be no building upon last year’s successes. In addition, the personalities of individual staff members and their impact on the culture of the school would be unknown to everyone as they started the year.

As an administrator, you wouldn’t anticipate high productivity until staff members learned what was expected of them and how to work together to benefit the students. For most administrators, the idea of 100 percent staff turnover is an unpleasant one to consider. Successful schools (and districts) depend on continuity of staff, curricula and programs from one year to the next in order to continually improve.

Some educators are discovering that this continuity on which schools rely also can work in the classroom. Instead of starting each school year with a completely new group of students, some teachers are staying with their students for a second year at the next grade level, a practice that is known as 'looping'."

Having been in classrooms for 45 years in secondary schools and also college, my first reaction would be to consider personalities. What about the teachers or students who don't work well together? Do you force them to endure another year together? Parents already have a lot of say in those decisions. This would cause more input from them. I had a year when I moved with my students from grade 8 to grade 9. there were advantages and disadvantages. But it's an interesting approach to consider.

Might Your Fall 2020 Courses Be HyFlex?

The HyFlex model is one that is being considered by schools for this fall semester. In this model, teachers teach simultaneously to students in their classroom and other students connect synchronously to the class. It can be labeled in other ways - hybrid, flex, blended - but all of them provide options for students who can’t come to class for health or logistical reasons. For this fall semester, this can also allow for socially distant classrooms because students can rotate through classroom spaces on alternating days.

At my university, NJIT, one model is called converged learning and offers a third option for students to view a class recording asynchronously later. By reducing the number of in-classroom students, they plan to use large spaces to socially distance students in courses that require face-to-face teaching, such as labs and studio courses. For a science and technology university, using physical spaces is essential for many courses.

Some faculty feel it will be very difficult to engage students in multiple locations. HyFlex also pushes faculty back to the "sage on the stage" lecture format that we have been trying to move away from the past two decades in order to increase engagement. many faculty at all grade levels still do not feel comfortable with the online technology even after the emergency switch over to it this past spring.

As an instructional designer, I feel that you need to design a course as a fully online one and consider the in-person portion (if it does occur this fall) as the enhancement. Don't expect the in-person portion to carry more than half of the teaching and learning.

Some things are better done in the classroom. Lecture probably isn't one of those things. Teachers and designers need to consider the differences based on the course, the space, and the instructor. In a FLEXible course, group might be best in-person or easier with more time put online. You wouldn't want to waste any lab or studio time lecturing.

In "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, posted about using the technology. He suggests that you might forego classroom discussion and have students respond to questions using live polling and web conferencing platforms.

For any of the flex models to work, all the class materials, assignments, group work, and other activities need to be ina a learning-management system so that they can be accessed no matter where they are learning. Bruff thinks it's a misconception that flex courses require two versions of a course for the classroom and for online.

If you want to know more about HyFlex, look into Brian Beatty's open-source book, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design.  

Kevin Kelly wrote a guest post, "COVID-19 Planning for Fall 2020: A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flexible Course Design" with examples of how a HyFlex class session might work.