How good are our websites’ readers at, well—reading?

In The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had (from Issue No. 2 of Contents), Angela Colter makes a point that may surprise a lot of web writers:

…if your target audience includes the general public, you may want to consider that nearly half of them may have low literacy skills.

And she backs it up with the research to prove it, both in the United States and abroad.

If you write for higher ed websites, you might think “Low literacy? At least that’s one problem we don’t have to worry about.” That is, unless you’ve read writing by college freshmen.1

In fact, according to the National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not to Read, in 2005 only 35% of American twelfth graders read “at or above the proficient level.” Further research finds that the books most frequently read by high-school students are written at a 5th to 6th grade level.

Now consider this: while only 35% of U.S. twelfth graders read at or above the proficient level, 68.3% of U.S. high school students enroll in college.

That means that in a best-case scenario (in which all of the proficient readers enroll in college), about 49% of college freshmen read below the proficient level.

Of course, the percentage of low-proficiency readers will vary from college to college. Some colleges enroll a higher percentage of non-proficient readers, others a lower one. But, as I’ll argue in a few moments, it’s an problem all of us need to reckon with.

Not that those of us who market universities and colleges online are going to solve it! But the numbers above make it clear that if we are to make our admissions numbers, all but the most elite colleges are going to have have to attract and enroll a good percentage of non-proficient readers.

Which means that our admissions websites are going to have to be written at a readability level below twelfth grade. How low? Tenth grade? Ninth grade? Your school’s English department probably has a good handle on the reading level of your entering freshmen. Give them a call.

“But we want the smart students”

I know what you’re going to hear from at least some of the folks you work with: “Tenth grade? Ninth grade?! Those aren’t the students we want. We want the smart ones!”

It is an understandable reaction. But keep in mind that reading proficiency and intelligence are not the same thing. If you’ve ever spent time in a country where you didn’t know the language, you experienced this first hand. You did not become less intelligent the moment you stepped off the plane. But you did effectively become a much less proficient reader, and your performance at all sorts of tasks—from obtaining coffee to riding the bus—probably suffered.

Now those less-than-proficient students are certainly going to have a harder time of it in college. But it’s a fact: there just aren’t enough proficient students to go around. Unless you work at a very elite institution, you simply have to attract lower proficiency readers and help them to gain the skills they need after they arrive.

And even if you do work at one of those elite institutions, here are four groups of people who might convince you to write your admissions content at a level somewhere south of twelfth grade:

  1. Parents: At what level do your prospective students’ parents read? They may in some cases have lower literacy than their children. The most recent Noel-Levitz E-Expectations study found that 48% of students involve their parents when deciding which college to attend. If those parents have trouble understanding your website, your institution may be less likely to make the short list.

  2. Stressed Out Students: As Angela Colter points out, we are all low-literacy at times:

    When people are tired, under stress, or just plain busy, they may have fewer cognitive resources to bring to the task at hand. And that affects word recognition, inference, problem solving—all the skills you use for reading and understanding.

    Tired, under stress, busy: this could easily be a student or parent researching colleges—or searching for financial aid. Under these conditions, even proficient readers will be grateful for an easier-to-understand website.

  3. Foreign students: If part of your job is attracting foreign students, keeping the reading level of your admissions materials lower will pay off. Just as when you tried to order coffee in Prague, these are smart people who may not be as proficient at reading as others. That doesn’t mean they won’t be a good fit at your institution.

  4. Everyone: Lining up readability levels with grade levels is a handy shorthand, but leads to the common misconception that more readable writing (that is, writing with a lower grade level) is somehow “stupider” than less readable writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few people who won’t appreciate writing that is clear, concise, and brief. Save the complex writing for complex matters—and maybe not even then. (The post you are reading right now has an average grade level of about 7.)

Actually simplifying your writing—now that’s the hard part. The Readability Test Tool is a good place to get started. And this is also a topic I’ll discuss in more detail in Social Media & Web Writing for Higher Ed, a four-week online course that starts on October 15, 2012.


  1. A big shout out to anyone else who’s been a reader for UC’s Subject A exam and its successors or any other form of mass writing-testing. You rock.