Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB2

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Are Extension Publications Readable?


Earl Johnson
Exposition and Conference Specialist
University of Georgia-Tifton

Satish Verma
Specialist (Program Development) and
Professor of Extension Education
Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge

In 1988, county Extension agents in the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES) mailed about 2.5 million circular letters and newsletters to their audiences. The question we asked was: Can the intended audiences understand the material? Put another way, how readable are these newsletters?

Readability is the ease of understanding the style of writing. The common formula used to measure readability considers sentence length and word length, or number of syllables. We used this formula and the Fry Readability Graph1 to determine the grade level (1-17) of the ACES mailings.

We asked a random sample of 100 agents (out of 246) to provide three pieces of recent circulars and newsletters written for adults or youth on agricultural and home economics subjects. We also asked for selected personal, demographic, and professional information we wanted to relate to readability. We received 97 usable questionnaires and 273 mass mailing materials.

Readability grade level of the adult audience material (11.2) was over two grades higher than the reading grade level of the average U.S. adult (9.0).2 Likewise, the youth audience material had a readability grade level of 9.6, whereas 86% of Alabama 4-Hers are in the 8th grade or lower.

We ran stepwise regression on readability using 18 variables relating to personal and professional information. Six variables were found to significantly influence readability, and explain 13.4% of the variance. Materials written by agents who had more education (master's and above) and had taken more hours of inservice communication training were more difficult to understand. However, the materials became easier to understand when agents spent more time writing. Agriculture material was harder to understand than home economics material.

It's likely that adult and youth audiences of Alabama Extension would have difficulty understanding circular letters and newsletters. What can be done? First, Extension agents should be made aware of the need to write at a level appropriate for a majority of their clientele. Second, Extension's staff development program should include writing for readability in future inservice communication training. At such training, agents can be introduced to the principles of readability, calculate readability scores, and practice writing, editing, and revising materials to match the reading levels of specific audiences.

Our study supports earlier Extension studies that found that educational materials are written at readability levels higher than those of the intended audiences.


1. E. Fry, "Fry's Readability Graph: Clarification, Validity, and Extension to Level 17," Journal of Reading, XXI ( December 1977), 242-52.

2. N. A. Mavrogenes, "Readability and Parent Communication: Can Parents Understand What Schools Write to Them?" Reading Horizons, XXIX (No. 1, 1988), 5-12.