Why Reading Age is a Key Factor in Successful eLearning Design

Most people understand how important it is to design content that works across a wide range of devices and operating systems. They want content that is compatible with browsers and works across all devices.

But not everyone considers a key factor for successful eLearning content. And that’s the learner’s reading age.

How many completely illiterate adults do you think there are in the UK? 1%? 5%? 10%?

Many people are surprised that less than 1% of adults in the UK can be described as completely illiterate. In fact, most people over-estimate BOTH illiteracy and literacy levels.

While half of all adults have attained the level of a good GCSE grade of A*-C, the average reading age of adults in the UK is just 11.

That means up to 12 million adults – over a third of the workforce – have the reading and writing skills expected of children leaving primary school. And 5% of adults (1.1 million people) have the skills expected of 5-7-year-olds.

What happens when we overestimate our learner’s reading ability?

In the worst case, we simply lose our learner. They might click through the content and ‘complete’ the course. But it is not likely that they have understood it. The best case is that we will have made their learning experience much more difficult than it could have been.

Reading age is NOT thinking or comprehension age

It’s key to remember that a "reading age" doesn’t necessarily correspond to thinking or comprehension age. Simple, readable text can tackle complex and difficult subjects. We don’t have to dumb down our eLearning content – we should work to simplify it.

What reading ages look like in real life

One university study found that The Sun newspaper was the easiest to read. It had a readability score similar to CBBC's Newsround. The Guardian newspaper was rated least readable. So if you want most of your learners to understand your content, you need to write like CBBC’s Newsround.


Test yourself - how readable is your content?

Readability levels are defined by sentence length and complexity of vocabulary. Test your content now. Simply cut and paste your text into the SMOG calculator to see how complex it is!

Then compare your SMOG result to these average scores for newspaper editorials:

  • The Sun: under 14
  • The Daily Express: under 16
  • The Telegraph and The Guardian: over 17

Remember – readable text scores are LOWER.

Learning to write simple, readable text for everyone

No-one wants learning to be harder work than it already is! That’s why we should learn how to write simple, readable text for EVERYONE. NIACE has designed a free readability guide, which covers: 

  • use of white space and line spacing
  • font choice and size
  • use of illustrations
  • sentence length
  • jargon busting
  • use of active voice

You can also check out the Literacy Trust’s guide to writing readable text, which includes tips on:

  • Using bold to highlight keywords.
  • Meaningful subheadings.
  • Using bullet points to summarise the content.
  • Breaking up your copy into readable bite-sized chunks.
  • One idea per paragraph.

Provide content in different formats

Creating a course that meets learner’s needs is not just about writing readable text. We can design learning content in various formats to further include learners.

Learners who struggle with text may find it easier to understand a spoken word explanation of a key point.

Consider adding an audio option so a learner can choose to have on-screen text narrated to them.

Consider providing key learning points in video or animation format, making use of images, text and spoken word.

You may also find our infographic resource, 4 Ways to Ignite your eLearning Content useful.

If you are interested in starting a conversation about designing learning content that can benefit your organisation's learning and development strategy, please get in touch 



There has been a significant drop in Level 1's (equivalent to GCSE grades D-G), down from 39.5% to 25.8%.

The number of 16 to 65-year-olds at or below entry Level 3 (the equivalent expected by the National Curriculum of 11-year-olds) is 15% - it has not changed significantly since 2003.

The number of adults with entry Level 1 (the equivalent of National Curriculum expectations of 5 to 7-year-olds) has grown slightly between 2003 and 2011 from 3.4% to 5%. Using these figures, the research estimates that 1.1million adults in the UK have this level of literacy.

Around 16% of adults (5.2 million people) in England can be described as "functionally illiterate". They can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources. But reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems.

Alternatively, it may be helpful to relate this readability score to levels in the National Adult Literacy Standards. As a rough indication:

  • 9 –10 = approx. Entry Level 3;
  • 11–12 = approx. Level 1;
  • 14 –15 = approx. Level 2.


ONS 2009 mid-year population figures show that there are 34.1 million adults aged 16-65



What reading ages look like


led by a team from the University of Bristol's Intelligent Systems Laboratory and the School of Journalism at Cardiff University

Reading Levels

Sun Readers

At Entry Level 3 adults can:

  • read and understand short, straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently
  • read and obtain information from everyday sources

At Level 1 adults can:

  • read and understand straightforward texts of varying length on a variety of topics accurately and independently
  • read and obtain information from different sources

Guardian Readers

At Level 2 adults can:

  • read and understand a range of texts of varying complexity, accurately and independently
  • read and obtain information of varying length and detail from different sources

 average reading age research


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