Approximately 27 million U.S. adults are considered functionally illiterate. This means they have not learned to read or cannot read well enough to understand most of the printed material available--and necessary--in today's society.
Identifying these people can be difficult. Many have learned to cope, in varying degrees, with their literacy handicap. Many manage to hide their limitations from most of the people with whom they interact.
The following guidelines are intended to help in preparing written materials for adults with limited reading skills. It is directed to writers and editors who have never written for low-literacy audiences or who want to sharpen their skills, as well as to persons not trained as writers and editors but whose responsibilities require preparation of such materials.
The materials discussed in the guidelines are assumed to be informational; the goal is to prepare messages from which readers can gain knowledge. Basic points in preparing any informational material are addressed: Know the characteristics of the audience so that the material is appropriate; clearly identify and organize the message; and present the material in a way to get and hold readers' attention long enough for them to retain the message.
The guidelines do not contain new information. Rather they present information compiled from a variety of resources. Neither are they meant to be comprehensive. Additional grammar, art, graphics, and design resources might be needed to supplement the information, depending on the author's writing and editing experience. A selected list of references for additional information is included in this booklet.
Many of the examples used in the guidelines relate to food and nutrition, however, the concepts they illustrate are applicable to any topic.
After you have used or read "Guidelines: Writing for Adults With Limited Reading Skills", please evaluate its usefulness. An evaluation form is included in the back of the booklet. Your comments and evaluations will help the author develop any future supplemental materials or revisions to the guidelines.
To be effective in writing for adults with limited reading skills, you must understand some of their characteristics. Keep in mind one basic point -- the lack of good reading and comprehension skills is not an indication of your readers' intelligence. Your writing style should be simple and direct without "talking down" to them. A reader with limited reading skills often:
Choose and use your words carefully. That does not necessarily mean using fewer words to explain an idea. Unskilled readers can become frustrated and disinterested in the material if they do not understand or relate to the words on a page.
The list of frequently used written words given on page 16 can be helpful in word selection. Words appropriate to the cultural and environmental backgrounds of the readers can be added to the list.
Avoid: "Labels let you on the inside."
Better: "Food labels can tell you a lot about the food inside the package."
KEEP your own YARD and STREET clean.
PICK up TRASH around your HOME.
PUT TRASH in the proper CONTAINER.
WORK with your NEIGHBOR to clean up AREAS in your NEIGHBORHOOD and to keep them clean.
Many farmers raise catfish and other fish in ponds on their farms. This kind of farming is called aquaculture.
Aquaculture farming works this way. Farmers buy small fish called fingerlings and feed them in the farm ponds. The fish grow to weigh about one or two pounds. Then they are caught and sold to grocery stores and restaurants.
A lot of catfish can be raised in a pond. Aquaculture is a good way to raise a lot of food in a small space. Aquaculture is a good way for some farmers to make money.
Avoid: "Do not eat non-nutritious snacks."
Better: "Choose snack foods that are high in nutrients"
-abbreviations (unless commonly recognizable, i.e.USA)
-unfamiliar spelling of words
Persons with limited reading skills may not understand them and, more importantly, their eyes may not read over them smoothly.
"Poor readers" (unskilled)
"Poor readers" (limited income)
Sentence length. Short sentences averaging 8-10 words are ideal. Longer ones tend to contain multiple ideas. They probably should be made into two sentences. To keep sentences short avoid unnecessary words, descriptive phrases and clauses, and parenthetical expressions (clarifying or explanatory remarks put in parenthesis).
Sentence punctuation. Asking questions to emphasize a point is a good technique, wouldn't you say? Exclamation points are good for emphasizing your message, too! But, they can get misused through overuse! So watch it!
Sentence structure. Usually the subject precedes the verb in a sentence. But sometimes, to vary sentence structure, try putting the verb in front of the noun. For example:
"The use of exclamation points should be minimized."
"Minimize the use of exclamation points."
Active: "Jane identified a variety of trees."
"There are many ways to keep food safe to eat. One way to help keep food safe is to always wash your hands before getting food ready to eat. Other things that touch the food should be clean, too, such as pans, knives, spoons, countertops, mixing bowls and dishes. This is very important if you plan to eat the food raw, such as in green salads. You can pick up bacteria on your hands from things you touch during the day. The bacteria can get on the food you are preparing. There are many kinds of bacteria. Some bacteria will not hurt you, but some of the bacteria can cause you to be ill. Every year many people get ill from eating foods that were prepared by someone who did not keep their hands or cooking tools clean."
"Always wash your hands before getting food ready to eat. Make sure the pans, knives, bowls, spoons, cutting boards and other cooking tools are clean before you use them. Keeping your hands and cooking tools clean is VERY important if you plan to eat the food raw, such as in a green salad."
"You may know someone who was sick from eating food that was spoiled. Sometimes spoiled food does not look or taste spoiled. Here are some rules that can help you keep food safe to eat.
Keep food clean.
Keep hot foods hot.
Keep cold foods cold."
Headings are useful organization tools. They give an ordered look to the material, help readers locate information quickly, and give cues about the message content.
Illustrations should be used with a specific informational purpose in mind, not just as decoration. They should emphasize, explain, or summarize the text.
If your written material does not attract the attention of its audience, chances are your message will never be read. Both the overall visual presentation and the written message are important in developing useful and effective materials. Your format should be a simple, uncluttered, and balanced layout of text, illustrations, and design features. Once you have finished formatting, try the "upside-down" test. If you turn the finished layout upside-down, it should look as good and be as appealing as it does right side up.
|---------------|---------------|---------------| | | | | | | | | | | | | |---------------X---------------X---------------| | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |---------------X---------------X---------------| | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |---------------|---------------|---------------|
Mechanical spacing is equal distance between letters without regard to letter shape.
Optional spacing allows shapes of letters to determine spacing between them.
Every element of a publication's design should serve a purpose. Heading, visual devices, and spacing help to attract and keep the reader's attention, organize the information, and keep the "story" moving.
Visual devices draw the reader's attention to the most important places on a page. However, their overuse could be distracting.
Spacing is important. Generally, the size of the page dictates an appropriate column width, typeface style and size, spacing between lines, and the placement of visuals. Maintaining consistency in spacing throughout your work is important.
Margins. If possible make margins wider at the bottom than at the top of the page and equalize side margins.
Justified A justified right hand margin will have each line end at exactly the same place on the right margin and be the same length. The spacing will be uneven between words. Newspaper columns are good examples of justified margins. Unjustified An unjustified right hand margin will have each line end at different places on the right margin. Like this example, each line will be a different length. No irregularity can be seen with the spacing between words.
Columns. Use narrow columns, such as
this one. They are easier to read.
A 40-45 character column is
Paragraphs. When paragraphs are short, do not indent. When text is complex, start each sentence of a paragraph on a new line. Double space between paragraphs; single space between a heading and the first paragraph.
Words. Avoid putting the first word of a sentence as the last word on a line.
Pretesting allows an opportunity to evaluate and reassess the material for appropriateness with the target audience. There are two good pretesting resources described in the Readability Formulas section on page 16. Additional materials may be available at your local library.
Results of a pretest should give feedback on five basic components of effective communication: attractiveness, comprehension, acceptability, self-involvement, and persuasion.
-Overall design -Title -Color -Illustrations
-Repetition of key words or concepts
-Appropriate reading level
One element the writer cannot control, but which strongly influences comprehension, is the extent to which a reader's background knowledge and experiences can be applied to make the material meaningful.
-Culturally appropriate illustrations and words
-Credibility of the author
-Legibility of typeface
-Action-oriented illustrations that incorporate the
reader's point of view
-Text with personal references
-Words common to the reader's vocabulary.
-Identifying and presenting topics relative to the
-Logically sequencing information.
-Being a credible author in the eyes of the reader or
quoting a well known, reliable source.
Check how your materials meet some of the basic techniques on writing for adults with limited reading skills.
a country hard made parts think year about * has make people this years above have man picture those you across day he many place thought your after days head may put three * again did help me * through air different her men time all do here might read times almost does high more right to along don't him most * today also down his mother together always during home mr. said too an * house much same took and how must saw two animals each however my say * another earth * * school any end second under are enough I name see until around even if near sentence up as ever important need set us asked every in never she use at eyes into new should used away * is next show * * it night side far its no since want back father * not small was be feet now so water because few just number some way been find * * something we before first sometimes well began following keep of soon went being food kind off sound were below for know often still what best form * old story when better found on study where between four land once such which big from large one * while both * last only white boy left or take who boys get let other tell why but give life others than will by go light our that with * going like out the without good line over their words called got little own them work came great live * then works can * long there world children look page these would come had looked paper they write could hand * part things *
"Word Frequency Book" by John B. Carroll, Peter Davies, and Barry Richman, Houghton Mifflin Co. and American Heritage Publishing Co., 1971.
A readability formula is a mathematically-obtained rating of the grade reading level of written materials. The vocabulary, sentence structure, and word density are the components of your material that influence its readability. In general, as sentences become shorter and less complex and words become simpler (i.e., two syllables or less), the reading level of the material goes down.
If the reading level of your audience is unknown, then it is probably best to keep the reading level at the 5th or 6th grade level and thus useful to most people.
The two most frequently used readability formulas are the "Fry Graph Reading Level Index" and the "SMOG Readability Formula." Both tests are quick but useful tools to help writers determine the level of difficulty of written materials. However, there are limitations to their application. First, the tests do not take into consideration the characteristics of a reader's skill. Everyone's reading ability will vary depending on their interest and prior knowledge about a subject. Also the tests cannot measure the conceptual difficulty or complexity of written materials that result from the writer's presentation and organization of subject matter. It is up to the writer to know and understand the reading audience well enough to apply basic writing skills, to maximize the comprehension of the message, and to make it meaningful to the audience.
Test your materials with both the Smog and Fry readability tests. Together they can give you an estimate of the reading difficulty.
The Fry Graph method for determining the reading level of written materials is based on three 100-word passages. If your materials are shorter, you may need to modify the recommended number of words and sentences to use this index. For shorter materials the "SMOG Readability Formula" may be appropriate.
Steps to using the Fry Graph:
Replication of the Fry Graph did not lend it self to the on-line format. For more information please see Author's note below.
(1) Edward Fry, "Readability Formula That Saves Time," "Journal of Reading", Vol. II, No. 7 (April 1986), p. 512-516, 575-578.
Author's Note: A Fry Readability Scale can be purchased for $3.00 each plus a postage and handling fee from: Fry Readability Scale, Jamestown Publishing, PO Box 6743, Providence, RI 02940. For orders sent by fourth class mail: $1.00 minimum charge plus 5% for postage and handling; orders sent by UPS: $2.25 minimum charge plus 10%.
The SMOG formula is useful for shorter materials. To calculate the SMOG reading level, begin with the entire written work that is being assessed and follow these steps:
Total Polysyllabic Approx. Grade Level Word Count (+1.5 Grades) 0-2 4 3-6 5 7-12 6 3-20 7 21-30 8 31-42 9 43-55 10 57-72 11 73-90 12 91-110 13 111-132 14 133-156 15 157-182 16 183-210 17 211-240 18
When using the SMOG formula:
Example using the SMOG Readability Formula:
The example is from a pamphlet produced by La Leche League (Oct. 1982).
Three passages of 10 sentences (numbered) each and the polysyllabic words (ALL CAPS) in them have been counted. There are 29 polysyllabic words in the total 30 sentences. According to the SMOG Conversion Table, the approximate grade level is 8th.
1.) Right after baby is born, begin BREASTFEEDING-the sooner the better. 2.) The early milk will give baby extra PROTECTION against sickness. 3.) And baby's nursing will get you back into shape quicker.
4.) While you're at home, you can be with your baby, loving and nursing him, to your heart's content. 5.) Many little babies want to nurse every couple of hours. 6.) This frequent nursing brings in the milk. 7.) It's so easy, and you enjoy baby so much and feel so close to him, you'll hardly notice how many times you are feeding him.
8.) Try to have at least six to eight weeks at home to rest and give baby a good start before you go back to your job. 9.) Some mothers have to go back sooner, but they ask for the shortest hours POSSIBLE.
10.) Night feedings are EASIER when you're BREASTFEEDING. When baby wakes at night, just take him in bed with you to nurse. The nighttime nursing helps keep up your milk supply, and baby and you both enjoy the nursing and cuddling and drifting off to sleep together.
1.) As soon as POSSIBLE after baby is born, learn how to express milk from your breasts. 2.) A nurse in the HOSPITAL or clinic, or ANOTHER nursing mother, may be able to show you how this is done. 3.) There's also a section about EXPRESSING and storing mother's milk in the MANUAL "The WOMANLY Art of BREASTFEEDING."
4.) After you are back on the job, you can express milk on your coffee break and lunch hour to take care of the fullness in your breasts. 5.) The next day you can leave this milk in a bottle to be given to baby.
5.) The milk you express will have to be kept cold, of course. 6.) If there's a CAFETERIA in the office or FACTORY where you work, you can ask the manager for a little space on a REFRIGERATOR shelf. 7.) Or you can bring a large thermos jug filled with ice from home to keep yourCONTAINER of milk in while you are at work and while CARRYING it home to put in your REFRIGERATOR. 8.) WHATEVER plan you work out, it will mean that baby can still have your good milk even when you aren't there. 9.) And you'll be more COMFORTABLE too.
10.) Before you leave for work and when you get home, you and baby can relax and enjoy a nursing time TOGETHER. 1.) It's a nice way to say "good-bye for now" and "I'm home again, baby." 2.) During weekends and on days off, baby can really feast at your breast. 3.) And of course you keep right on with those nighttime nursings.
4.) No amount of money can buy the many good things that come with BREASTFEEDING. 5.) No FORMULA can compare with mother's milk. 6.) A baby on breast milk has fewer stomach upsets and DIARRHEA. 7.) But the main thing is baby's HAPPINESS. 8.) You just won't believe what this EXTRA-SPECIAL MOTHERING will mean to him.
9.) So give BREASTFEEDING a try, taking things a day at a time. 10.) If you have any questions - most of us do when we're starting out - ask a friend who is HAPPILY nursing her own baby. The mothers of La Leche League are friends who want to help you breastfeed. Call or write us!
(2) McLaughlin, G. Harry. "SMOG Grading: A New Readability Formula." "Journal of Reading", Vol. 12, No. 8 (May 1969), p. 639-46.
(3) Table developed by: Harold C. McGraw, Office of Educational Research, Baltimore County Schools, Towson, MD.
The following selected references can provide additional information to help in developing materials for adults with limited reading skills:
Dale, Edgar and Jeanne S. Chall, "A Formula for Predicting Readability." "Education Research Bulletin", Vol. 27, Jan. 21, 1948.
Flesch, R., "How To Test Readability". New York, Harper and Brothers, 1951.
Fry, Edward, "A Readability Formula That Saves Time." "Journal of Reading", Vol. 11, No. 7 (April 1968), p. 512-16, 575-78.
McLaughlin, G. Harry, "SMOG Grading: A New Readability Formula." "Journal of Reading", Vol. 12, No. 8 May (1969), p. 639-46.
Scully, Sarah V. and Joan Doyle, "E.M.P.O.W.E.R.: Evaluate Materials To Promote Optimal Use of WIC Education Experiences". Massachusetts WIC Program, Department of Public Health, April 1985.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, "The Idea Book: Sharing Nutrition Education Experiences". FNS-234, Sept. 1981.
"Readability Testing in Cancer Communications". Reprinted June 1981 by the Office of Cancer Communications, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD.
Felker, Daniel B., Ed., "Document Design: A Review of Relevant Research". Document Design Center, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, April 1980.
Doak, Cecelia C., Leonard G. Doak, and Jane H. Root, "Teaching Patients With Low Literacy Skills". J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1985.
Charrow, Veda R., "Let The Rewriter Beware". Document Design Center, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, Dec. 1979.
Pit, Dennis W., Ed., "Audiovisual Communications Handbook". Peace Corps contract 25-1707, Audio Visual Center, I.U., Bloomington, IN. 1976. Available from: World Neighbors, 5116 North Portland Avenue, Oklahoma City, OK 73112
Felker, Daniel B., Frances Pickering, Veda R. Charrow, V. Melissa Holland, and Janice C. Redish, "Guidelines for Document Designers". Document Design Center, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, Nov. 1981.
Boyce, M.R., "Guidelines For Printed Materials For Older Adults". Michigan Health Council, East Lansing, MI, 1982.
Hartley, James, "Designing Instructional Text", Second Edition. Kogan Page Ltd., London, England, 1985.
Sadowski, Mary A., "Elements of Composition." "Technical Communications", Vol. 34, No. 1 (Feb 1987), p. 29-30.
Bertrand, Jane T., "Communications Pretesting". Media Monograph 6, Communications Laboratory, Community and Family Study Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1978.
"Pretesting in Health Communications: Methods, Examples and Resources for Improving Health Messages and Materials". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD. NIH Publication No. 83-1493, Revised Dec. 1982.
Developed by: Nancy Gaston and Patricia Daniels, FNS
Edited by: Lillie Sheehan, GPA
Design: Jan Proctor, GPA
Typing: Kay McCormick, GPA