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Comprehension Rate – How to Be Read and Understood

I don’t know about comprehension rates, but I look forward to learning.

Comprehension rate – no idea, but looks as though it’s related to the sort of ‘reading ages’ of, for example, newspaper articles.

Okay, the definition of the term “comprehension rate” that I’m about to share with you, is an excellent measure that you stay mindful of when you are writing. (70%.) I’ve just performed a Google search for the definition of  comprehension rate and I’ve discovered a curious thing. (82%.) Predominantly, the results from the search tend to mention “speed reading.” (89%.) This is not the definition that I am looking for! (90%.)

The comprehension rate that I’m referring to, is the percentage of people who comprehend a sentence after reading it just once. (78%.)

You have probably noticed the various percentages that I’ve scattered through the text above? (86%.) And the one just now? (95%.) I’ll stop dispensing them now. (95%.) Okay now. (98%.) Erm … Now? (99%)  Grrr!


The percentages represent rough calculations of the number of people out of one hundred who comprehend a sentence after they have read it just once. Those who didn’t comprehend it the first time, well they’re the people who have to reread it. Just to make sure that you are with me: if 75% of people comprehend a sentence after reading it the first time, the other 25% didn’t.

Out of those 25% who didn’t comprehend the sentence, how many of them didn’t bother to go back and read it again? I don’t know, but from what I know of human nature, I’d say quite a few. This is even more true when the culprits are reading off of a computer screen, though who really is the culprit of this crime?

Well, let’s just say that it is up to the writer to try to keep the average comprehension rate of sentences higher rather than lower.

How to Keep Your Sentences Comprehension Rate high.

The comprehension rate has a rough correlation to the number of words in a sentence. If a sentence has twenty words in it, it means that twenty people out of one hundred failed to comprehend it the first time – giving that sentence an 80% comprehension rate. (Eighty people got it.)

That’s not to say that you should keep the word count of a sentence to (say) ten words. It is to say that you should vary the length of your sentences to keep the majority of them in a higher comprehension rate bracket. You could have longer sentences bracketed by two shorter ones. There is also other punctuation to take into account, such as the humble comma or hyphen. If your longer sentence had a one of these, or a semi-colon maybe, then it can be forgiven somewhat for being longer – it’s your call.

There are other (rough) little markers that I’ll go over with you to facilitate the comprehension of your writing at another time. If you have rough measures or markers in the back of your mind when you are writing your first draft, it makes sense that you will have less editing to do when you come to write your second one. (Damn, I just lost 39-ish% of you … )

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About Stephen Gritton

Husband. Father of Five - Yes FIVE! Musician. Singer/Songwriter. Keyboard/Guitar. Web Developer. Web Host. Ladies Hairdresser.

7 Responses to “Comprehension Rate – How to Be Read and Understood”

  1. my says:

    nice post, interesting tidbits about comprehension rate.

  2. amy says:

    These are some really useful tips. very basic but very useful.

  3. Connor says:

    Surely it is more important to write in a manner with which you are happy than to dumb-down in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator?

    I would rather have a ‘comprehension rate’ of 10% and write something entertaining, fresh, insightful and stimulating than produce some dross that belongs in The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

    This is not to suggest, however, that we should be prolix just for the sake of it. I would argue that more valuable rules can be found in George Orwell’s ’5 Rules for Effective Writing’ (

    • Avatar of Sonny Sonny says:

      Well, what’s wrong with The Very Hungry Caterpillar? (My children loved it.)

      I understand where you are coming from, but you must understand that this is a guide. It gets people thinking about being concise. There is no hard and fast rule on this, it’s a yardstick by which you can measure your prose as you write it. Should every sentence be just ten words long? Absolutely not, but this device does get you thinking about sentence length and comprehension at the first draft level. Get as much work done as possible to start, hopefully leaving less editing to do in subsequent drafts.

      By the way, I don’t think many would be entertained by a sentence that is ninety words long. You may want to rethink that idea.

      • Connor says:

        I very much appreciate your reply and, as an aspiring writer, I am constantly wrestling with myself on these issues, though I do think broadly speaking we should avoid being too prescriptive and focus instead on ensuring our writing is entertaining and maintains the reader’s attention than fulfills certain stringent rules; whilst I concede that it may err on the side of wordiness on occasion, this sentence is precisely 90 words in length and yet the use of other forms of punctuation enables it to retain some measure of clarity.

        Too tempting to take up your challenge! Thanks for the response though.

        • Avatar of Sonny Sonny says:

          Here, let me help you out with that …

          Thanks, I appreciate your reply.

          As an aspiring writer, I am constantly wrestling with myself on these issues. Broadly speaking, I do feel that we should avoid being too prescriptive, and focus on ensuring our writing is entertaining – and maintains the reader’s attention. It shouldn’t have to fulfil stringent rules! I concede that I have erred on the side of wordiness on this occasion; it doesn’t matter so much, because this paragraph consists of five sentences of differing words counts. This fact, in combination with other forms of punctuation, enables me to promote maximum “comprehensibility.”

          It was a 92 word paragraph, split into 5 sentences. Each sentence averaged 18.4 words, so it achieved an overall, rough 81.6% comprehension rate. It was too tempting to pick up the gauntlet that you dropped! It’s been fun. Thank you very much for your comments.

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