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How Reading Level Affects Web Accessibility

Mar 15, 2023

When you’re writing for a general audience, your content must be readable. Complex sentences certainly have their place (and we’ve used quite a few on this blog), but you don’t want to overwhelm your readers — you want to deliver a powerful message. Clear, concise text can make a difference.

Reading levels are an assessment of your text’s readability. Generally, when writing web content, you want to aim for a low reading level. Your content should be understandable for people with a lower secondary education level.

As we’ll discuss, that’s not always practical — but by considering reading level when writing, you can improve accessibility and expand your audience.

WCAG’s Requirement for Content Reading Level

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) addresses reading level in success criterion 3.1.5, “Reading Level.” Here’s the full text:

When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles, supplemental content, or a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available.

This is a Level AAA requirement, and most websites should aim for conformance with WCAG’s Level A/AA criteria. That means that technically, you don’t need to pass this guideline to operate an accessible website.

But while WCAG’s Level AAA criteria are strict, they’re still worth your attention. This criterion is an excellent example: If your text is easy to read, every user benefits.

This is particularly true for users with neurocognitive differences, reading disabilities, and memory impairments. Complex sentences may confuse or frustrate these users — particularly if your writing could be simplified without changing its message.

Related: Writing Clearer Content That Benefits Accessibility Expands Your Audience

Analyzing the Reading Level of Your Content

Many methods are available for measuring reading level. The Flesch-Kincaid test is one of the most common; it uses a basic formula to analyze the total words, total number sentences, and total syllables of a passage, then presents its score as a grade level.

You can use a free Flesch-Kincaid analysis tool to measure readability (many word processors have built-in readability tests, and those tests often use Flesch-Kincaid or a similar formula). 

WCAG defines “lower secondary education" as 7-9 years of school. If your content is within this threshold, you’re writing for accessibility. If not, look for opportunities to use simple, common words.

What if my content has a high reading level?

Some content cannot be simplified. If you’re writing a scientific paper, for instance, you need to use specific words to make your point — and to understand your research, your readers may need an advanced education.

Every writer must consider their audience. On this blog, we discuss digital accessibility, and we use the terminology of our industry. While we try to write in plain language, that’s not always possible.

When you cannot simplify your content, try to provide an alternative. This helps people with reading disabilities and other impairments understand the purpose of the content — even if they don’t read every word. 

For instance, a scientific paper might begin with a summary of the research. A business’s blog might include a link to a glossary that defines the terms used in the content. Providing these resources can improve readability for everyone, regardless of their education or reading abilities. 

Related: 5 Quick Writing Tips for Creating More Accessible Content

Other Best Practices for Accessible Content

By using simple language wherever possible, you can communicate more effectively. Here are a few other quick tips to keep in mind:

  • Break up your content. Short paragraphs are easier to read, and subheadings can be used to keep your content organized.
  • Vary the length of your sentences. This is just a good writing tip — when you follow a short sentence with a long sentence (as we’re doing here), your writing will flow more naturally.
  • Use HTML lists where appropriate. Keep each entry in your lists fairly short.
  • Use graphics and images. Make sure you write accurate alternative text for all non-text content.
  • Avoid jargon and idioms. Plain language is usually the best option.

By thinking about your readers when writing, you can create interesting, engaging content. For more guidance, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.

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