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Monday, January 14, 2019

Test your report's readability

One of the concepts that I tend to repeat when training folks in the forensic sciences is that our work should target the last mechanical device that will display or project our work products as well as targeting the combined perceptual abilities of the Trier of Fact. Working in this way, there will be no surprises when it comes to presenting your work.

The same is true for your reports. Your reports will make sense to you. You wrote them. They'll make sense to your quality control staff (your reviewers) as they tend to exist in the same culture and climate as you. But, will they make sense to the Trier of Fact - without you having to explain it to them?

There is functionality within our toolset to help with this question - how readable is my report? If you're using MS Word to draft your reports, it's actually quite easy to set this up.

  • Click the File tab, and then click Options.
  • Click Proofing.
  • Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
  • Select Show readability statistics.

After you enable this feature, open a file that you want to check, and check the spelling by pressing F7 or going to Review > Spelling & Grammar. When Word finishes checking the spelling and grammar, it displays information about the reading level of the document.

Each readability test bases its rating on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. The following sections explain how each test scores your file's readability.

Flesch Reading Ease test (references)

Originally developed for the US Navy in 1975, this test rates text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. For most forensic science processing / analysis reports, you want the score to be between 55 and 70. Given that we'll have to use standard scientific terminology, it will be difficult to achieve readability scores higher than 70.

The formula for the Flesch Reading Ease score is:

206.835 – (1.015 x ASL) – (84.6 x ASW)


ASL = average sentence length (the number of words divided by the number of sentences)

ASW = average number of syllables per word (the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test

This test rates text on a U.S. school grade level. For example, a score of 8.0 means that an eighth grader can understand the document. For your reports, aim for a score of approximately 7.0 to 10.0. It will prove difficult to bring these values down, as noted above, due to our use of scientific language which gets averaged into the total score.

The formula for the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is:

(.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59


ASL = average sentence length (the number of words divided by the number of sentences)

ASW = average number of syllables per word (the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

The Readability Statistics shown above is from a raw authentication report - before editing and before the insertion of the plain English explanations for each of the processes.

Given that about 95% of cases plea and never see the inside of a court room, it's vitally important that your reports be readable.  95% of your reports will be read, interpreted, and acted upon without your being present to help the reader understand what you said / meant. With this simple tool that is built into many word processing applications, you can assure that your reports are readable, and at what grade level.

If you're using Google Docs, you'll need to run your report through another app or web site. Readability Statistics were removed some time ago.


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