How to Determine Text Difficulty in Any Language

ramcharit manas satik (hindi)This article can be seen as an intermission for the series How to Test Reading Skills in Any Language. In order to choose appropriate texts for comprehension assessment, or even fully use the new data you’ve collected by testing all of your students, you’ll need to know how difficult it is to read the texts you have on hand.

How easy or difficult it is to read a text is referred to as the text’s readability. There are several ways to measure text readability in English, there are even a host of programs that can do it for you. These methods are based on simple metrics that can be put to use in any language or alphabet or, at least, most of them.

In this article, we’ll go over three of the most common ways to measure readability that can be used in other languages. Keep in mind that even the most robust tests in English have their flaws, and results that go strongly against common sense are likely to be inaccurate.

Different assessments may be better for different languages, and any of them may need to be adjusted based on how each alphabet works. Keep in mind that these, and countless other tests, use the same basic metrics: average words per sentence and average syllables per word. You may find that a small change is better suited to the language or students you teach. If so, great!

Some tests take into account the difficulty and obscurity of words. This, of course, requires a lot of work to recreate for a new language. If you’re working with a language that has clearly defined formal and informal registers, that may be something that you would use to alter the results. This is so variable from language to language, however, that it will not be included in this guide.

Fry Readability Test

This is the most simple readability test, and therefore, the easiest to implement.

  1. In a book or text of more than 100 words, randomly select three 100-word passages. If this is not possible, you can still use the assessment using a single 100-word passage, or a fraction thereof by multiplying appropriately. This count should include every word and numeral.
  2. Count the number of sentences in each passage, then find the average or multiply (by two for a 50-word passage, for example).
  3. Count the number of syllables in each passage, finding the average or multiplying as appropriate.
  4. Find where the results intersect on the chart below.

As the graph indicates, passages with many short sentences and many short words are easier to read than passages with long sentences and many long words.

 Flesch & Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test

The Flesch readability test uses similar metrics to determine a text’s readability but uses a formula to create a numerical score, rather than providing points to plot on a graph. This is best used for comparing texts to one another and creating a guide for readers to self-determine what books they’d like to read. The formula is as follows:

The Flesch-Kincaid test alters the formula to create a result in terms of grade level:

A result of 7.1 would mean that the average 7th grader would be able to read the book with little difficulty. This is more useful for actively assigning texts to students without initial testing. Of course, it is likely that different languages and educational settings may need to see the numbers adjusted to more accurately reflect the grade-level reading skills for that context.

The Flesch and Flesch-Kincaid readability measures have the advantage of not requiring a minimum passage length and are, therefore, more useful for rating texts for very young readers, whose books may have fewer than 100 words.


SMOG is often used to test the readability of texts with many complicated words, such as health messages. It focuses on how many words of three or more syllables are present in a text of 30 sentences or more. The resulting number is an average of how many years of schooling it requires to understand the text.

Using Readability

Knowing the readability score of the texts you have on hand can be very useful. If you’re considering using a text as a whole class activity, these measures will let you gauge if it is appropriate for the students you teach.

Likewise, if you have either a class or school library, these tests make it easy to give readers an idea of how difficult a given text will be and give teachers some guidelines for recommending books to individual readers.

Of course, for both scenarios, testing your students’ reading level before hand will be crucial in using the information effectively.

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Written by Michael Jones