- Readability: Text and Context by Alan Bailin and Ann Grafstein
According to the authors, this book "examine[s] a wide range of evidence pointing to factors that have an effect on readability" (ix). It is aimed to serve as a "guidance to writers and educators" (ix) and as a "one-stop resource for both scholars and practitioners" (1). It also aims to be an "attempt to begin to establish a direction for a unified study of readability" (ix). I will argue in this review that it does provide an overview of existing readability studies, but that its criticism somewhat narrowly focusses on readability formulas while ignoring existing non-formulaic proposals and lacking the theoretical depth and crosslinguistic rigor to really provide an interdisciplinary approach to the notion of readability.
In writing this book, which is based on an article by the authors, Bailin and Grafstein have "hoped and assumed that the reader of this book will come from a diverse range of disciplines" (4) and that the book "will be accessible to anyone with a professional interest in the principles of effective written communication" (4). The authors further say that they have "tried to ensure throughout that the arguments we make will be clear even for those who cannot or do not wish to follow the more technical details" (4).
The book is divided into six chapters. In the first, introductory chapter, the authors outline the basic concepts of their monograph. They suggest three basic concepts related to textual comprehension: linking of information units, ambiguity, and background knowledge (5). The chapter argues that claims about readability can be supported by whatever type of evidence is available, but that empirical approaches should always be supported by a sound theoretical approach.
The second chapter, "Readability Formulas," provides a historical account and criticism of readability formulas. The authors argue that there is a focus change in Western rhetoric from argumentation to communication, and trace the study of readability to classical rhetoric. [End Page 257]
Chapter 3, "Grammar and Readability," analyzes the effect of grammatical complexity, ambiguity, and linking of information, which are central notions in the authors' approach to readability. Chapter 4, entitled "Meaning in Words and Sentences," then focuses on semantic aspects of readability, especially issues of background knowledge in understanding a text and semantic ambiguity.
Chapter 5 focuses on "Coherence and Discourse" properties of texts and their effect on readability, where, in addition to a further discussion of conceptual linking and background knowledge, the authors discuss the effect of frames and metaphors on readability.
The final chapter, entitled "Towards a Theory of Readability," summarizes the arguments made in the book and outlines the aspects that the authors consider to have an impact on readability.
The study of readability is here defined as "an inquiry into what properties of texts help or hinder communication." The authors do not separately introduce the term "comprehensibility" and seem to make no such distinction; elsewhere, they use the term interchangeably with readability ("[we] examine the properties of texts and their contexts in order to identify factors that affect comprehensibility and ease of reading," 63). As the term "comprehensibility" is often used (see, e.g., Charrow; Maksymski et al.), it would have been useful for the authors to at least state that they do not differentiate between readability and comprehensibility.
The title of Chapter 1 announces a "new approach to readability." However, while the authors make a good case for the value of the synthesis conducted in their book, it is not entirely clear what is "new" about their approach. One suspects it may be the understanding of readability through the concepts of linking, ambiguity, and background knowledge, but the authors do not make this clear. At least in the introductory chapter, a little more orientation toward the academic discipline would have benefitted the authors' aim of establishing a unified theory of readability considerably.
The authors make the argument that what are usually called complex sentences may be "easier to understand than simpler sentences because they make the relationships between clauses explicit" (55), which is a...