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How does one determine the reading level to which a specific word belongs? For example, I want to use the word 'verbose' in some software. So, if I want to determine if it is appropriate to use the word based upon the users of the system, is there a web site where I can enter the word and get feedback?

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What "reading level" are your users? Are they native speakers at all? Kids? What age? –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 11 '11 at 22:01
@kiamlaluno, I interpret the question as "how do I determine the reading level of a word?", and the OP is expressing an idle wish that this task were as easy as plugging the word into a magic machine somewhere on the internet. –  Marthaª Feb 11 '11 at 22:57
I like the idea of being able to ascertain the reading level of a particular word or phrase. I work with many non-native English speakers, and often find myself hitting the backspace key to undo what I just wrote to look for a simpler way to explain myself. –  ukayer Feb 12 '11 at 3:36
Note that when it comes to non-English speakers, "difficult words" may not be those you would expect. This is particularly the case with French speakers as a significant portion of "complex English words" are in fact French words and thus easier for a French audience than seemingly "simple" words. Case in point, "verbose" is "verbeux" in French. In context, it should not be too hard to understand. –  Sylverdrag Feb 12 '11 at 4:41
There's Google, if you trust their new reading level feature. It's meant to show the reading levels of websites rather than words, but you can get an idea by searching for the phrase and checking the reading level distribution of the results. "verbose" gives 71% hits classified as "intermediate" reading level. At least some people seem to like it. –  j-g-faustus Feb 12 '11 at 6:35

3 Answers 3

I don't know how to check "reading level" per se, but you can substitute for it by checking the usage frequency of individual English words online.

For instance:

The assumption here being that the more common words are more likely to be known to users than rarely used words.

According to a study on vocabulary*, high school grads will know approximately 12k word families and approx 17k word families by the time they complete college.

As such, you can use as a rule of thumb that any word past the 12k mark in frequency rating can be considered to be challenging for most users. (with of course of a lot of exceptions)

Also, keep in mind that while some words are commonly used, some definitions of these words can be very rare, making them likely to be misunderstood. In my opinion, the most challenging words of the English language are small common words such as "to", "as", "in", etc. which can have 10 - 30 different definitions.

Checking frequency is a negative test: If the word is not frequently used, you can safely assume that it will stump some of your readers, but it does not guarantee that a word frequently used will be easy enough either.

This is a great question, by the way. I find that one of the most neglected areas of software documentation is the definition of terms used and what they really mean in the context of the software.

* E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D'Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212 (Referenced in Wikipedia's article on Vocabulary.

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There's an (old — 1971) book called the Living Word Vocabulary that gave reading levels for different words. In it, "verbose" is given a score of 12–72%, which means that on a multiple-choice test, 72% of 12th graders could identify the correct meaning of "verbose".

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I know that Unix shell scripts like tar list a -v Verbose option when you invoke them using a --help flag, so they think it is accessible to their audience...

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I agree: "verbose" is entry level jargon, in this context I think you can expect it. –  horatio Feb 11 '11 at 21:50
Then again, command line Unix is not reputed for its user friendliness, and its audience is mostly IT personnel, not general public. –  Sylverdrag Feb 12 '11 at 4:33
Yeah, I agree with Sylverdrag. Unix commands have very little bearing on what is accessible to wide audiences. :-) (I say this as a happy user of several Unix systems myself.) –  ShreevatsaR Feb 12 '11 at 5:35
verbose was just an example. The actual use of the word verbose was in a discussion wherein the hearer did not know the meaning of the word. verbose in this case is not intended to be used in the software but the user's reaction triggered the question about reading level. –  C.W.Holeman II Feb 12 '11 at 15:27

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