Editor’s Note: It may seem obvious that success in learning from a text-based medium is dependent on reading skill, but this article reminds us that comprehension is based on the level of language and vocabulary used and the relevance of visual, verbal and auditory examples. Now read on …..
Readability versus Reading Skill
Denis M. Finnegan
E-learning is growing at 8% annual rate which is a $5 billion investment and the benefits are unclear (Britt, 2004; Jones, 2004; Wutoh, Boren, & Balas, 2004). The importance of E-learning warrants a review of its effectiveness. Numerous studies comparing E-learning to classroom have confounded results (Iverson, Colky, & Cyboran, 2005; Jones, 2004; Stewart & Kraiger, 2005). E-learning and classroom use different sensory inputs, which may account for the confounded results. Classroom instruction predominantly uses verbal discussion while E-learning uses reading. Expecting similar learning outcomes from listening comprehension and reading comprehension may be conceptually flawed. This paper will review adult reading trends, discuss reading level and readability as it applies to E-learning, and suggest further research.
Keywords: e-learning, reading, online learning, adult, readability, reading level, literacy, elearning, asynchronous learning.
Can Johnny read online? Can Johnny learn online? The answer to these two questions may suggest ways to improve the success of E-learning programs; in both the academic setting and in corporate training programs. E-learning’s popularity in corporate training, college programs, and commercial training courses is growing dramatically. For purposes of this discussion, E-learning includes text-based courses like asynchronous self-directed courses, asynchronous discussion courses, and correspondence courses that use the Internet as the means of correspondence. In these examples, E-learning requires the student to read course material, post written responses, and interact with fellow students though threaded online text-based discussions. E-learning’s text based approach is notably different from traditional classroom courses. Hiltz (1994) as cited in Wiesenberg (1999) states,
“The most frequently cited distinctions between the traditional face-to-face and new virtual classroom are structural; speaking and listening in the traditional classroom versus typing and reading in the virtual classroom; everyone moving at the same speed versus self-paced; a set time and place versus anytime and anyplace; social interaction as inappropriate versus social interaction as appropriate at the discretion of the participants; recording responsibility being the students' versus the system's; and utilization of advanced technologies in learning a luxury versus a necessity.” (Wiesenberg, 1999, para. 5).
E-learning is gaining in popularity and warrants continued study of its effectiveness, “During the 1999-2000 school year, for example, an estimated 1.5 million students, or about 1 of every13 postsecondary students, took at least one telecommunications distance education course” (Ashby, 2004). It is critical that educators understand the unique challenges of E-learning in order to design effective instruction. Distance education courses have many variables in design, like the use of graphics, audio, and video. One common element of E-learning is that the primary instructional method which is reading text. This paper intends will begin the exploration of the hypothesis that course readability and student reading level impact online learning success.
The Investment and the Results
The goal of E-Learning should be learning or knowledge gain that positively affects performance or behavior. E-learning, as a learning methodology, is increasing in use and investment throughout the education spectrum (Tanquist, 2001). E-learning effectiveness, as measured by learning and student preference, has mixed results (Anderson, 2005; Cappel & Hayen, 2004; Esch, 2003; Gallaher, 2002; Greengard, 1999; Hodson, Connolly, & Saunders, 2001; Schulman & Sims, 1999). The investment in E-learning is expected to exceed $4.7 billion in 2007 and the benefit of those investments are in question (Britt, 2004). E-learning and classroom are often compared determine which is more effective (Chapman, 2005; Hylton, 2006; McFarland & Hamilton, 2005; Schulman & Sims, 1999). These studies have confounded results and report marginal differences between methodologies.
Comparison studies often focus on measuring the effectiveness of each methodology on factors like student preference, knowledge gain, and barriers (Anderson, 2005; Browne, Mehra, Rattan, & Thomas, 2004; Esch, 2003; Gallaher, 2002; Mungania, 2004; Stewart & Kraiger, 2005). Comparing two methodologies like classroom and E-learning may be faulty in conceptual design due to the differences in sensory input for students. In the typical classroom, students interact with the content most often though verbal interchange, dialogue, using speech and hearing (Wiesenberg, 1999). In E-learning, students interact with the content primarily through seeing and reading. The comparison when testing classroom versus E-learning, is of listening skill versus reading skill (McFarland & Hamilton, 2005).
One common attribute of E-learning programs is they are predominantly text based. Success in text-based courses is dependent on reading skills. E-learners have varied reading skill levels and preferences with online reading (Vernon, 2006). E-learning courses also vary greatly in readability or reading level (Allen & Dutt-Doner, 2005). The gap between student reading skill and course readability will affect student comprehension and learning. Reading skill must equal or exceed readability to ensure comprehension and learning. Readability is the match of reading skill and reading level. It is the responsibility of course designers, teachers and program administrators to ensure that courses are constructed and delivered at an appropriate level for the target audience.
Education programs intend to cause learning and help students clear up misunderstandings. In classroom instruction, the teacher addresses confusion or misunderstanding through the use of questions and dialog. Teachers have the responsibility to monitor and assist each learner achieve the learning goals. One of values teachers bring to the learning environment is the ability to design and deliver training that causes reflection, processing, and thinking (Dewey, 1997; Merriam, 2004; Wiesenberg, 1999). The challenge of the E-learning classroom may be the distance between the student and the instructor (Wiesenberg, 1999). In a traditional classroom the instructor will detect the puzzled look and engage the learner in dialog. In the virtual classroom this is more difficult due to lake of timely student feedback. Another difficulty in addressing classroom confusion is diagnosing the root cause. Is the student confused by the concept or was he or she unable to comprehend the presented written material? These problems may have very different remedial solutions. Confusion may be resolved through an alternative explanation or approach, while poor reading comprehension skills may require the course material to be written or explained at a different grade level. In the case of E-learning the key to success is the readability of material and how well that matches the students reading skill.
Adult Reading Skills
Literacy is critical to individual and societal success. Literacy is defined as “the quality or state of being literate, esp. the ability to read and write” (Random House Webster's College Dictionary 1999, p. 782). Key to being literate is being able to use information or to be Information Literate (IL). “IL is inextricably associated with information practices and critical thinking …” (Bruce, 2002, p. 1). IL is the ability to locate, digest and solve problems in our everyday lives. In a democratic society, citizens need IL skills to make purchases, choose political candidates, make health decisions, and so on.
Adult reading skills are critical to workplace success and to be information literate (NIFL, 1996). Organizations show increased productivity by improving reading skills by as much as 10% (NIFL, 1996). Workplace reading research is rare and most adult reading research is for Adult Basic Education (ABE), English as a Second Language (ESL) and for other challenged populations. There have been declines in reading habits in America, for example; newspaper reading has declined (NIFL, 1996; Scales & Rhee, 2001). Adult literacy research shows a decline of reading skill and frequency (McFarland & Hamilton, 2005; NIFL, 1996).
Recent statistics on adult literacy are discouraging, “U.S. adults scored below four out of five other countries in literacy and numeracy” (Livingston, 2006, p. 2). Reading habits and reading trends may be contributing to the decline in literacy,
“On a daily basis, 48 percent of adults reported reading newspapers or magazines, 32 percent reported reading books, and 51 percent reported reading letters and notes (see supplemental table 20-1).In comparison, the percentages of adults who reported reading less than once a week or never was 15 percent for newspapers or magazines, 38 percent for books, and 20 percent for letters and notes. Eighty-eight percent of adults reported having 25 or more books in their home.” (Rooney et al., 2006, p. 52).
Reading is a critical component of literacy and American adults are challenged. The research on adult reading skill varies but clearly demonstrates the challenge adults have and this has significant implication for E-learning
“According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 42 million adult Americans can't read; 50 million can recognize so few printed words they are limited to a 4th or 5th grade reading level; one out of every four teenagers drops out of high school, and of those who graduate, one out of every four has the equivalent or less of an eighth grade education.” (Sweet, 1996, para. 4).
Reading rate is declining, “The higher the education level, the higher the reading rate, but reading among every group has declined over the past 20 years” (Bradshaw & Nichols, 2004, p. xi). On the positive side, there has been an increase in percentage of high school graduates who enter and complete a bachelor degree program and that is positively associated with reading habits, “Adult reading habits are positively associated with educational attainment: the more education a person attained, the more likely that person was to report reading newspapers or magazines, books, or letters and notes daily in 2003” (Rooney et al., 2006, p. 51).
The research cited in this paper clearly demonstrates the decline in reading abilities across America. The decline in reading skills probably negatively impacts reading comprehension. Reading comprehension therefore, must affect E-learning success, since E-learning is dependent on reading. McDonald, Dom, and Dom (2004) as cited in McFarland and Hamilton (2005), “…online students must be proficient readers in order to be successful. Yet, in the authors' combined 25 years of university teaching experience, we have noted that more and more students seem to avoid reading as much as possible” (McFarland & Hamilton, 2005, p. 26). One factor that may be contributing to this decline in reading may be the readability of the course material. As the gap between student skill and the difficulty of the material widens, it is understandable that readers will change their reading habits. This may become a downward spiral, as reading frequency declines, skill declines, and so on. This downward spiral may have an every increasing rate of decline due to the readability challenge of many E-learning courses.
The introduction of the internet, email, text messaging, and other forms of written communication is impacting the nature of reading. Reading is shifting from text like passages that include articles and books to one-liners, bulleted outlines, phrases, and a new language like non-standard instant messenger abbreviations, i.e., “LOL” Laugh Out Loud.” In addition, the overload of written communication like email, Instant Messages, internet, and intranet articles requires different reading skills. Many people scan the material and look for the key item. When one receives dozens of emails a day reading for deep comprehension probably can not occur.
The impact of readability is critical to successful reading and comprehension. Readability is the “…characteristics of the text itself, rather than to the design superstructure that surrounds the text. By readability, we mean a focus on text that most uses will be able to read once and understand…” (Hackos & Stevens, 1997, p. 285). Readability is a critical aspect of ensuring students can understand course content. In a learning application, text based instruction needs to be clear, easy to read, focused on the learning objective and free from extraneous material. However, readability is also reader centric. Reading skill levels vary greatly in the adult population (Rooney et al., 2006). It is critically important that authors, teachers and those presenting information write the material so that it is readable by the target audience (Abram & Dowling, 1979; Aldridge, 2004; Denethia, Melva, Deborah, Sara, & et al., 2003; Wegner & Girasek, 2003).
Writing for the target audience is important to comprehension. Writers, authors and E-learning developers need to know their natural writing level and ensure they write to the level of the audience (Larocque, 2006). If one writes at a natural level of 12th grade but the audience reads at the 10th grade it behooves the author to wrote at or near the 10th grade to ensure comprehension. Larocque (2006), states that many writers worry they may “dumb down” their material but suggests writing for comprehension is the goal of quality writing (p. 41). The effectiveness of E-learning will increase as readability is improved. E-learning designers, teachers, and program administrators should consider the readability of a course of interests and the subject learners reading level. If the goal of educational course is learning why would designers write a course that the student cannot comprehend? It is critically important that instructional designers analyze the needs of their students (Visscher-Voerman & Gustafson, 2004).
E-learning’s popularity in America is growing (Britt, 2004; Karr, 2002). The effectiveness of instructional design of many E-learning courses is in question (Bray & Barron, 2003; Keller, 2005; Schoenfeld & Berge, 2004; Smith, 1986). Internal teams with varied backgrounds in instructional design and development are increasingly developing E-learning courses. With the introduction of easy to use tools like Macromedia Flash, Captivate, Breeze, Vuepoint Learning System, and so on; many subject matter experts are developing courses with little of no background in instructional design. Even those trained in instructional design seldom evaluating readability or reading level of their audiences. Reviews of commercially available Instructional Systems Design (ISD) courses show no reference to readability.
Instructional designers of E-learning must consider the impact of reading online. Online reading is different from book reading. Consider the differences that occur in variable methods that print-based text is presented, from paper quality, font size, margin differences, and so on. Now consider putting that information on line and the reader has additional challenges,
“Writing for the Web differs from writing for print media –our eyes have adapted to paper as the medium and are trained to scan paragraphs, turn pages, etc. On a screen, sentences can fill the width of the monitor, and are often too wide. Small type is difficult to read because of the resolution and flicker of the display. Moreover, because of the proliferation of information on the Internet, users can quickly become overwhelmed. As a result, information has become devalued and people have developed ways to subconsciously filter out non-vital information, and be more discriminating about what they will take the time to read.” ("ONLINE: Effective writing for the Web," 2003).
E-learning requires students to read, comprehend, and reflect to enable learning (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; McGlinn & Palmer, 2005; Merriam, 2004). It is critical to narrow the gap between course readability and learner reading skill. This narrower gap will increase the probability that comprehension and learning will occur.
Assessing Reading Level and Readability
Matching the course or instructional material readability to the target student populations reading skill will enable comprehension. Popular newspapers show a decline in subscriptions and at least one author suggest it is related to readability,
“Today's journalists, already the most educated crop of reporters and editors ever, need more ongoing education so they can interview with sophistication, research with understanding and report with credibility, but when it's time to write Meyer suggests they shed the sheepskins and scribble their stories at a sixth- to eighth-grade level, a range he identifies as the sweet spot of newspaper readability.” (Meyer, 2005, para. 3).
Meyer (2005) suggests writing for the reading level of the audience for a newspaper and one can easily see the relevance for authors of instructional material.
Measuring reading level can be accomplished using numerous tools like Gunning-Fog, Flesch Reading Ease, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level instruments (Larocque, 2006; Wise, 2003). The intent of reading assessments is to measure comprehension or functional literacy. Literacy is the ability of individuals to function within their society (Fueyo, 1988; Gupta, 2006; Sticht, 2006). Literacy is measured various ways, including prose, document, and quantitative (National Assessment of Adult Literacy 2003). Comprehension allows the reader to use the information. Comprehension is a key attribute of literacy. One aspect of functional literacy is prose literacy, “The knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks, (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts). Examples include editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials” (National Assessment of Adult Literacy 2003). It is critical that reading level of educational material be appropriate to the target audience.
Reading level is a measure of reading ability of an individual reader. Reading level is often reported by grade level. Grade level is roughly equivalent to school grades, for example, grade level 10 suggest the material or the reader skill is at the Sophomore in high school level of complexity. However, the grade level one completes does not automatically guarantee that is the one’s reading grade level. Reading is a critical skill for functional literacy. From buying groceries to reading instructions on medical prescriptions, it is critical to match the reading skill with the reading level of the information (Lave, 1988). Most patient medical information is written at the high school or college level, many researches suggest writing this material at the fifth or sixth grade level (Aldridge, 2004; Wallace, Turner, Ballard, Keenum, & Weiss, 2005). The RAND Reading Study Group (2002), as cited in Coiro (2003) reports, ”… recognized features of conventional texts, such as varying genres, structures, reading levels, and subject matter that create potential challenges for readers” (Coiro, 2003, p. 459).
The criticality of reading and literacy is highlighted in the 2003 survey by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which found the adult population prose literacy distribution to be 14% below basic, 29% basic, 44% intermediate and 13% proficient. “Prose Literacy levels are defined as “Below Basic: no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills; Basic: can perform simple and everyday literacy activities; Intermediate: can perform moderately challenging literacy activities Proficient: can perform complex and challenging literacy activities” (National Assessment of Adult Literacy 2003). Given that, 43% of the adult population is at the basic or below basic level of prose literacy, it is critical to ensure that instructional material is prepared at a level that will enable this population to learn.
Readability is the connection between understanding and comprehension as compared to the writing style of the author (Abram & Dowling, 1979). Abram and Dowling (1979) suggest that one instrument to measure readability for adults is the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease formula. As an example, this paper scores a 25.8 on Flesch reading ease and a 12.6 on Flesch-Kincaid grade level using Microsoft Word Readability Statistics function. Abraham and Dowling discuss that the Flesch-Kincaid instrument determines readability by evaluating the number of syllables and words per sentence in a 100-word sample (p. 366). Klare and Campbell (1967) as cited in Abraham and Dowling (1979) suggest that a score of 25.8 is “very difficult” and “college graduate level” (p. 366). As an example, if this paper was intended for the general population, half or more of the population would find it difficult to read. Putting this paper online may increase its difficulty further for some readers (Vernon, 2006).
Online reading is relatively new and its application to learning even newer. Personal preference will affect outcomes and one would assume comprehension, “an important area of research considers student learning styles and its affect on student performance in an online class” (Wiesenberg, 1999, p. 30). One study of graduate students found clear preference for traditional reading mediums, “Fifteen (18.3%) of the statements were positive toward the electronic text. Nine (11.0%) statements were ambivalent or neutral. Fifty-eight (70.7%) were negative. These students clearly preferred a paper text or offered a rationale for why they were using a printed copy” (Vernon, 2006, pp. 422-423). Similarly many studies that compare classroom to E-learning find preference for classroom (Jones, 2004). An issue that warrants further investigation is the source of the preference. Preference may be based on habit and experience or it may be related to ones learning style (Kolb, 1984; McFarland & Hamilton, 2005). Preference or learning style is an important factor that instructional designer must consider (Blass & Davis, 2003; Cassarino, 2003; Lewis & Orton, 2000). McFarland and Hamilton (2005) attempted to further the answer to fundamental questions on learning differences in online versus traditional classroom posing "Are these factors different for online and traditional classes?" (McFarland & Hamilton, 2005, p. 25).
One aspect of McFarland’s and Hamilton’s (2005) research that was not specifically addressed was reading skill impact on learning. They found no significant difference in course satisfaction and grade between the online and classroom students. It is the hypothesis of this author that there may have been a difference if reading skill and readability of the online material were included in the research. McFarland and Hamilton (2005) did suggest that online content is difficult and needs to be addressed, “The first context is to make the materials less difficult to learn from, that is, elaborate upon them and made them clearer” (p. 35).
The effect that readability and reading skill have in E-learning raises many questions. How does one measure the reading level of online text when there are hypertext links, graphics, and other attributes of the reading? How does reading online differ from traditional book reading? Are there generational or age differences in online reading ability due to experience with internet-based reading? What is the effect of the physical difference in reading on a CRT or LCD panel versus a book? There are many other questions and the current focus of this author’s research is the impact online reading has on adult E-learning. The intent is to compare a representative sample of employees, from a Fortune 100 company, reading ability to a representative sample of that company’s E-learning course readability. The hypothesis is that online reading skill is significantly different (lower) then the readability level found in most E-learning courses.
Learning online requires reading comprehension skills sufficient to master the material presented. There is a need for ongoing research to evaluate the online reading skills of typical adult learners as compared to the readability of E-learning courses. The implication of the research will influence instructional design techniques, particular the level of language / vocabulary used, use of graphics, page layout, interactions, and other methodologies to engage the learner in a deeper level of engagement with the content. Designing E-learning with an appropriate reading level will enable “Johnny” to read and comprehend the material which will foster “Johnny’s” learning. Researches, E-learning designers and instructors must stay focused on the goal of E-learning, “Learning” (Finnegan, 2005).
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About the Author
Denis M. Finnegan is Associate Vice-President, Claim Training and Development, at The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. He received a B.S. in education from Southern Illinois University; an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an M.A. in Adult Education from the University of Connecticut.
He has been with The Hartford for the last 11 years as AVP, Corporate Education and now AVP, Claim Training and Education. During this time, he brought technology based learning to applications that include Corporate University; computer based training and multimedia; satellite downlink training; classroom based technology training; Intranet/Internet based training; and company-wide videoconference training. Additionally, he delivers classroom-based courses adult learning, instructional design, leadership, customer service/sales, and effective presentations.
Prior to The Hartford, Denis spent 24 years in the United States Navy Submarine force. He was involved with the entire spectrum of training from stand up technical instruction to director, submarine force distance learning program. He retired as a Lieutenant Commander in 1994.
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