A user-study measuring the effects of lexical simplification and coherence enhancement on perceived and actual text difficulty

Gondy Leroy, David Kauchak, Obay Mouradi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Purpose: Low patient health literacy has been associated with cost increases in medicine because it contributes to inadequate care. Providing explanatory text is a convenient approach to distribute medical information and increase health literacy. Unfortunately, writing text that is easily understood is challenging. This work tests two text features for their impact on understanding: lexical simplification and coherence enhancement. Methods: A user study was conducted to test the features' effect on perceived and actual text difficulty. Individual sentences were used to test perceived difficulty. Using a 5-point Likert scale, participants compared eight pairs of original and simplified sentences. Abstracts were used to test actual difficulty. For each abstract, four versions were created: original, lexically simplified, coherence enhanced, and lexically simplified and coherence enhanced. Using a mixed design, one group of participants worked with the original and lexically simplified documents (no coherence enhancement) while a second group worked with the coherence enhanced versions. Actual difficulty was measured using a Cloze measure and multiple-choice questions. Results: Using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, 200 people participated of which 187 qualified based on our data qualification tests. A paired-samples t-test for the sentence ratings showed a significant reduction in difficulty after lexical simplification (p < .001). Results for actual difficulty are based on the abstracts and associated tasks. A two-way ANOVA for the Cloze test showed no effect of coherence enhancement but a main effect for lexical simplification, with the simplification leading to worse scores (p = .004). A follow-up ANOVA showed this effect exists only for function words when coherence was not enhanced (p = .008). In contrast, a two-way ANOVA for answering multiple-choice questions showed a significant beneficial effect of coherence enhancement (p = .003) but no effect of lexical simplification. Conclusions: Lexical simplification reduced the perceived difficulty of texts. Coherence enhancement reduced the actual difficulty of text when measured using multiple-choice questions. However, the Cloze measure results showed that lexical simplification can negatively impact the flow of the text.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)717-730
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Medical Informatics
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • Comprehension
  • Consumer health information
  • Health literacy
  • Information systems
  • Medical informatics computing
  • Patient education
  • Readability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


Dive into the research topics of 'A user-study measuring the effects of lexical simplification and coherence enhancement on perceived and actual text difficulty'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this