Plain language: is your focus on readability dating your practice in the 1970s?

By: Jolyon Burford, Trainer & eLearning Developer

Research from 2015 told us that Australian health Websites were written on average at about a year 12 level.

A lot of work has been done to simplify websites and information since then. New templates, writing AI, codesign, plain language policies have all helped to make information easier to understand.

BUT! you can still use simple words, images and spacious formatting to communicate badly. I see communication getting simpler with clearer formatting and more images to support it.  However, a LOT of communication still contains too much information, assumes contextual knowledge and has imagery isn’t representative and doesn’t reinforce key messages.

So, while reading level and formatting are nice and essential, they’re only a small part of the picture if we’re trying to communicate so more people understand. Any mention of reading level should also include a warning that reading level is not enough. People like Karen Shriver, who wrote this great piece on the progression of Plain Language to where we are today let us know that focusing on readability alone is a throwback in the 1970s!

“Between 1940 and 1970, plain language focused mainly on readability. During the 1970s, some practitioners began to employ usability testing. By the mid-1980s, there was a widespread sense that plain-language advocates had shifted priorities from readability to usability. Between 1980 and 2000, advocates broadened their vision—beyond word- and sentence-level concerns to include discourse-level issues, information design, and accessibility. Between 2000 and 2015, advocates continued to worry over their old questions “Can people understand and use the content?”, but also asked, “Will people believe the content? Do they trust the message?”

So, instead of focus on readability, it’s clear the focus should be on a broad range of factors including:

  • reading level,
  • white space,
  • reducing information with an option to click or QR through to more information,
  • images that reinforce
  • codesign of messaging that takes into account the background knowledge of
  • trust!

If you want to find out more about plain language writing:

come along to our FREE drop the jargon day webinar focusing on plain language,

or check out our popular eLearning ‘Reach More People with Plain Language Writing’

Photo Credit: Willrow Hood/