by Natalie Ames, MSW, Ed.D.
Readability describes how easily people can read and understand printed text (McLaughlin, 1968). If you’re like many social workers, you probably haven’t thought about the readability of the print materials your agency provides to clients. I speak from experience. When I was assigned to write a series of “easy-to-read” fact sheets for people with limited literacy skills, I knew nothing about readability. Once I learned how to make my writing readable, it hit me that in many years of social work practice, I had given clients hundreds of pieces of written information without ever considering how easily they could read and understand them.
Writing may not be part of your job description, but in most social work settings, writing is part of the job. Unfortunately, most of us don’t learn about the importance of readability or how to make our writing readable while we’re in school. Standard writing assignments, such as research papers and literature reviews, do not prepare you for the professional writing social workers do in practice. Too often, the academic writing that earns good grades consists of enough long words and long sentences to fill a specific number of pages. When you write for readability, your goal is not to fill pages or to demonstrate how much you know. Your goal is to identify what your audience needs to know and to give them that information clearly, simply, and concisely.
Why Should It Matter?
Readability should matter to social workers because many of our clients are poor, and people who are poor are more likely to have limited literacy skills (Corley, 2003; White & Dillow, 2005). Nearly half of adult welfare recipients have not graduated from high school, and approximately 70% of these individuals have limited literacy skills (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). If you give clients brochures, booklets, and flyers with information they can’t comprehend, they won’t benefit from or be able to use that information. If eligibility criteria or application instructions are buried in unnecessary details and complicated language, people may be discouraged from applying for services or taking part in programs your agency offers.
It is important to note that it’s not just people who are poor, or those with low educational attainment, who benefit when you offer them readable materials. Although people who are poor may be more likely to have difficulty with reading, there are many other individuals in this country who are not good readers. In fact, many Americans read four to five grade levels lower than the highest grade they completed in school (Doak, Doak, & Root, 1996). This means that you probably have clients with a high school diploma or GED who actually read at only a 7th or 8th grade level.
It’s not surprising that social workers are unaware of readability as an issue. We don’t learn about it in school, and there isn’t much research for us to turn to. The little research that has been done on social service agency materials found them to be written at well above the U.S. Department of Education’s recommended 8th grade level (see King, Winton, & Adkins, 2003; Mavrogenes, Hanson, & Winkley, 1977; Wilson, Wallace, & DeVoe, 2009; Yick, 2008). The research suggests that social workers should be checking their agencies’ print materials for readability.
Here’s the good news if the materials your agency gives to clients are in need of improvement. You can learn how to make them more readable. Like every new skill, it does take some time and effort to change the way you write. As I learned myself, there’s a side benefit to making that effort. When you learn to write clearly enough for clients with limited literacy skills to understand what you write, you improve the clarity of all of your professional writing.
Tips for Improving Readability
The first step is to review your agency’s existing materials and answer two basic questions about each piece:
1. Who is your target audience?
The target audience is the people you’re trying to reach—clients, prospective volunteers, the general public, other professionals, and so forth.
2. What is the purpose of the material?
The purpose is what you want your audience to know or to do after reading it.
Separate Need-to-Know Information From Nice-to-Know Information
Any time your audience includes people with limited literacy skills, it’s critical that you limit the content to what they need to know in order to benefit from or use the information (Doak et al., 1996). This means resisting the temptation to include every detail you know. People who do not read well will not have the patience or the skill to sift through information that’s of no immediate interest or use to them. They’ll give up before they locate or understand need-to-know information, such as: who to call for financial assistance, or when the food pantry is open, or where to find shelter from an abusive partner.
Too often, social service agency materials contain a lot of nice-to-know information that could be eliminated. Clients do not need to know who the agency’s director is, how many clients the agency assisted last year, when and how the agency was founded, or what the staff members’ educational backgrounds are. Yet, I have seen all of that information in brochures meant to inform clients about agency services. Including that kind of nice-to-know information is like explaining to someone who wants to heat lunch in an unfamiliar microwave how microwave ovens work. All they need to know to cook their lunch is which button to push.
Reading Grade Levels
Readable materials should be written no higher than the 8th grade reading level, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The closer they are to the 5th grade reading level, the easier they will be for people with limited literacy skills to comprehend (Doak et al., 1996; National Work Group on Literacy and Health, 1998). This does take practice! You’ll probably have to rewrite more than once to get the reading level below 8th grade, but don’t get discouraged. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Remember, you spent many years in school learning to read and write at much higher reading levels than what you’re aiming for.
Tips for Lowering Reading Levels
- Use short words and short sentences. It’s easier for poor readers to decipher short words and follow short sentences.
- Write in a conversational style. It’s easier for poor readers to follow text written in a conversational style. This doesn’t mean using slang. It does mean that if you read what you’ve written out loud, it should sound pretty close to the way you speak.
- Use active voice. Active voice is more direct and uses fewer words than passive voice. If you’ve forgotten the difference between active and passive voice, look it up. It really does make a difference.
- Use plain language. Avoid acronyms and jargon. People outside your agency won’t understand the abbreviations and “social work speak” you use with your colleagues.
It’s not difficult to measure reading grade level if you have an electronic version of your text. You can paste your text into any of the free online readability calculators listed at the end of this article and get an estimate of reading grade level in a few seconds. For text you don’t have in electronic format, you can use the SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) formula to hand-calculate reading level. You’ll find instructions at http://www.readabilityformulas.com/smog-readability-formula.php.
Formatting to Increase Readability
You may think that lowering the reading grade level is all it takes to make text easy to read. Although that’s very important, there is more to readability than a low reading grade level. The way you format and lay out the text can either help people to read it or discourage them from trying. Incorporating the guidelines below is critical if you’re trying to reach people with limited literacy skills. As an added benefit, these guidelines will make your agency’s print materials easier for everyone to read.
- Use at least a 12-point font. Small print discourages poor readers. It is also difficult for many older individuals to see.
- Use plenty of white space. Lots of print with little white space looks intimidating.
- Use bolding or underlining to emphasize important points.
- Use plenty of subtitles to prepare readers for what to expect.
- Use ragged right margins. Justified text (i.e., text with even right margins) has variable spacing between letters and words. It’s harder to read because it’s hard for the eye to follow.
- Do not use ALL CAPS. Their block shapes are more difficult to decipher than lower case letters.
- Do not use fancy fonts. Fancy fonts (including italics) take longer to read and decrease comprehension. The best fonts for readability are Times New Roman, Garamond, Cambria, and Georgia.
- Do not use more than one font. Combining different fonts will make your text look busy and confusing.
- (adapted from Doak et al., 1996)
Illustrations can make a flyer or brochure more attractive and eye-catching, which may encourage people to pick it up. Do not use illustrations just to “fancy up” a brochure. The key is to use graphics that are related to the text. They improve readability by illustrating the messages in the words. If you only have access to graphics unrelated to the text, do not use them. If you use images of people, be sure they look like the people you’re trying to reach and that they’re culturally appropriate.
Online Readability Calculators
SMOG Online Readability Calculator. Available at: http://www.wordscount.info/wc/jsp/clear/analyze_smog.jsp
ReadabilityFormulas.com. Available at: http://www.readabilityformulas.com/free-readability-calculators.php
Online-Utility. Available at: http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp
Corley, M. A. (2003). Poverty, racism, and literacy. ERIC Digest. Retrieved 2/15/11 from: http://eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED475392.pdf
Doak, C. C., Doak, L. G., & Root, J. (1996). Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott. Available free at Harvard University School of Public Health: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/healthliteracy/resources/doak-book/
King, M., Winton, A., & Adkins, A. (2003). Assessing the readability of mental health internet brochures for children and adolescents. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 12 (1), 91.
Mavrogenes, N., Hanson, E., & Winkley, C. (1977). But can the client understand it? Social Work, 22, 110-112.
McLaughlin, G. H. (1968). Proposals for British readability measures. In J. Downing & A. L. Brown (Eds). The third international reading symposium (pp. 186-205). London: Cassell.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). National Assessment of Adult Literacy. U. S. Department of Education. Retrieved 9/10/10 from: http://nces.ed.gov/naal/
National Work Group on Literacy and Health. (1998). Communicating with patients who have limited literacy skills. Report of the National Work Group on Literacy and Health. Journal of Family Practice, 46, 168-176.
White, S., & Dillow, S. (2005). Key Concepts and Features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2006-471). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Wilson, J. M.; Wallace, L. S.; & DeVoe, J. E. (2009). Are state Medicaid application enrollment forms readable? Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 20, 423–431. PMID: 19395839 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Yick, A. (2008). Evaluating readability of domestic violence information found on domestic violence state coalitions’ websites. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26 (1), 67-74.
Clear and to the point: Guidelines for using plain language. http://www.problemgamblingprevention.org/tips/Readability-scores.pdf
Dean, J. Plain Language Online Training. http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/plaintrain/index.html
Harvard School of Public Health. Health literacy studies: Assessing and developing health materials. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/healthliteracy/practice/innovative-actions/index.html
Medline Plus. How to write easy-to-read health materials. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/etr.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Simply put: A guide for creating easy to understand materials. http://www.cdc.gov/healthmarketing/pdf/Simply_Put_082010.pdf
Natalie Ames, MSW, Ed.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Social Work at North Carolina State University. Her practice experience includes medical social work, individual and group counseling with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, program development and administration, and community outreach. Her low-literacy fact sheets and brochures have been published by the National Cancer Institute and the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at West Virginia University. Dr. Ames is co-author, with Katy FitzGerald, of Writing Clearly for Clients and Others: A Practitioner’s Guide (Lyceum) and has taught workshops for national, regional, and statewide audiences on how to write for people with limited literacy skills.