How Readable Are Your Animal Advocacy Materials?
In 2009, the blog Vegan Soapbox addressed whether animal advocacy materials were “readable” enough—after all, it doesn’t matter how many pamphlets we hand out if people don’t comprehend what they are saying. The post highlighted readability scores, which are derived from various formulas that rank the grade level or reading ease of different texts.
Compelled by this idea and method, Faunalytics partnered with VegFund and FARM to evaluate the readability of the most widely distributed vegan outreach pamphlets. Continue reading for a summary and highlights from the study. The full report is also available and addresses background research on readability scores and the reading level of US adults, our methodological approach, and provides the complete results.
Animal advocacy literature needs to educate and persuade if it is to have any effect. That means, at its most basic level, animal advocacy material must be written in a manner that clearly and effectively communicates with its audience. While having literature that is written in a clear and concise manner is not, by itself, sufficient for creating a persuasive argument, it is fundamentally necessary. Though there is ample attention paid to design, layout, expert quotes, pictures, and recipes, the readability of the actual text of outreach materials seems to be overlooked.
To reach the intended audience, outreach materials must be written for the appropriate reading level. The average U.S. adult has a 9th or 10th grade reading level and 44% of U.S. adults have an 8th grade reading level or lower. Faunalytics recommends that vegan outreach materials (and most animal advocacy materials) should be developed at a 7th or 8th grade reading level to ensure they speak to the majority of readers. Even if outreach is targeted on college campuses, as many vegan outreach campaigns are, it is important to keep materials basic and readable—the average college graduate reads at only about a 12th grade reading level.
We identified and evaluated 11 pamphlets promoting vegan outreach, representing nine different organizations; we evaluated three pamphlets from Vegan Outreach to compare and contrast those materials because they are all used extensively by vegan advocates. Following are the materials we evaluated: Compassion Over Killing (COK), Vegetarian Starter Kit; Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), Live Vegan; Friends of Animals (FOA), Vegan Starter Guide; Humane Myth (HM), Don’t Buy the Myth; Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), The Guide to Meat-free Meals; Mercy for Animals (MFA), Vegetarian Starter Kit; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Go Vegetarian! Go Vegan!; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Vegetarian Starter Kit; Vegan Outreach (VO), Compassionate Choices; Vegan Outreach (VO), Even If You Like Meat; and Vegan Outreach (VO), Why Vegan?
There are a number of formulas that calculate the reading ease (or reading level) of a text. We utilized an automated tool to calculate six different types of standard and valid readability tests for each pamphlet. For more information on each readability test, information on how the automated program was selected and tested, as well as a full explanation of methods and materials, please see the full report. The only part of the pamphlets that was evaluated was the text—photo captions, recipes, and food lists were not included.
Based on six readability tests, the average readability scores ranged from a low reading level of 11th grade for PCRM’s brochure to a high of 15th grade (beyond college level) for the Humane Myth brochure. Most importantly, all brochures are written at three to four grade levels higher than the average reading level of U.S. adults, which is even higher than the level that Faunalytics recommends.
The pamphlet that had the lowest readability score (i.e., was rated at the highest grade level) was Humane Myth’s Don’t Buy the Myth tri-fold flyer. While this pamphlet is short, it has many complex, long sentences and larger words. This makes it less readable for a number of reasons. Difficult words are less likely to be recognized by people with less reading experience. Longer, more complex sentences can also lead to an inability to follow the argument being presented, increasing readers’ likelihood of skipping over sentences or not understanding the point of the author.
The most readable of the evaluated texts is PCRM’s Vegetarian Starter Guide; its median reading score placed it at the 11th grade reading level. Though this is still higher than the 7th grade reading level that Faunalytics recommends, the PCRM pamphlet does a good job of conveying information in a clear, simple manner. Rather than creating complex sentences, this vegetarian starter kit opts instead for multiple short sentences. This is ideal because it does not require the reader to process a lot of information at once. The ideas and information presented in vegan outreach literature are novel to most and potentially shocking; it is therefore important that outreach literature lightens the cognitive load, making the text more easily read and understood.
Overall, there was not much variability in the texts, with the exception of Don’t Buy the Myth. The median grade levels of the other ten pamphlets ranged from 11-12.7, all being at about the reading level of a high school graduate. All of the vegan outreach literature was written at a higher level of readability than Faunalytics recommends. As previously noted, the average college graduate in the U.S. is reading at about a 12th grade reading, but only 30% U.S. adults over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree. The text in these pamphlets is potentially too difficult to fully and comprehensively convey the intended message to most U.S. adults.
Moving forward, animal advocacy groups need to develop their literature so it can reach a wider audience. Many aspects of vegan outreach materials matter—layout, photos, fonts, which experts or celebrities provide quotes, the types of arguments used, if they are long booklets or short pamphlets, etc. However, underlying all of this there is a fundamental need to make sure that what they say and the arguments they make are easy to understand, for it is only then that people can be educated and persuaded to change their attitudes and behaviors.