Working with Plain Language
© 2008 Impact Information
Purpose
The purpose of this lesson is
to introduce the basic
concepts of plain language.
Contents
1. What Is Plain Language?
2. Know Your Reader
3. Reading Skills
4. Matching Texts with
Reading Skills
Workshop Goals
By the end, you will know how to:
1. Define plain language.
2. Define readability.
3. Assess the reading skill of your readers.
4. Use a readability formula.
5. How to match a text with the reading skill
of your audience.
1. What is Plain Language?
Plain language is easy for readers
to understand because it matches
their reading ability.
Plain-Language Samples
Before:
A thorough inspection of your forest home or
summer cottage and the surrounding property for
obvious fire hazards is the first step in fire
protection.
After:
You can protect your forest home or summer
cottage by first inspecting your land and building
for fire hazards.
Before:
Prior to completing the application, the applicants
should determine if the proposed corporate name
is available.
After:
Before you complete the application, find out if
another company is using the name you have
chosen.
What happens when the text is too
difficult?
Readers feel frustrated.
 Most often, they stop reading without
even thinking about it.
 They may seek help or call support.
 They go to some other task.
 All of this costs you money.

The Costs of Poor Language
If your organization is
not using plain
language, you are not
operating effectively.
You are wasting
money.
Plain-Language Benefits for
the Reader
Plain language results in
greater:
•Comprehension
•Retention
•Reading Speed
•Perseverance
Plain-Language Cost Benefits
 Greatly increased comprehension and
readership.
 Greater customer satisfaction.
 Reduced costs of training and customer
support.
 All of which makes you money.
2. Know Your Reader
The ease of
reading depends
on two sources,
the text and the
reader.
Features of the Reader that
affect Readability
1.
2.
3.
4.
Prior Knowledge
Reading skill (literacy)
Interest
Motivation
3. Reading Skills
Literacy surveys
have shown that
the average reader
in the U.S. is an
adult of limited
reading ability.
National Adult Literacy Survey
Level 3
Canadian Survey Results
Adult Reading Difficulties
Adults have the same reading
difficulties as children of the
same reading level.
Level of Education
and Average
Reading Ability
Some high school
High school graduate
College graduate
Professional
5th grade
9th grade
12th grade
16th grade
Effects of Low Literacy
Those with low reading levels die
earlier, spend more time in
hospitals and jails, and have lower
earning levels. Their children are
less likely to attend college.
Literacy and Education
There is often little relation between
reading skill and education.
 Those with little education can go on to be
come highly skilled readers.
 Those with much education can lose their
skills through lack of practice.

Literacy and Health
Problems caused by
low reading ability add
an additional $73
billion yearly to healthcare costs.
Good readers take
more responsibility for
their own health.
Literacy and Job Performance
• There is a direct
relationship between
reading skill and job
performance.
• Good readers bring vast
domains of knowledge
and resources to their
work.
Literacy and
Power
Knowledge is key to
establishing and maintaining
power relationships.
Literacy is also the key to
knowledge.
Highly literate persons
possess large bodies of
knowledge and informationprocessing skills.
Other Literacy Facts
• Large numbers graduate from
high school reading at the 8thgrade level.
• Almost a third of the
population does not graduate
from high school.
• The average adult in the U.S.
reads at the 9th-grade level.
• The most popular books and
publications are written at the
7th-grade level.
Blockbuster Writers
John Grisham
Tom Clancy
Michael Crichton
Clive Cussler
Mary Renault
Frank McCourt
Arthur Golden
Harper Lee
Mark Twain
All wrote at the 7th-grade level
1. Romance fiction is written at
the 7th grade level and below.
2. It generated $1.63 billion in
sales in 2002.
3. There were 2,169 romance titles
released in 2002.
4. Romance fiction comprises 18%
of all books sold (not including
children’s books).
5. Romance fiction comprises
53.3% of all popular paperback
fiction sold in North America.
6. Romance fiction comprises
34.6% of all popular fiction sold.
Romance Novels
Readability of Popular Periodicals
Periodical
Grade Level
% of Readers
Boston Globe
12
25%
Los Angeles Times
12
25%
Atlantic Monthly
11
30%
Atlanta Constitution
11
30%
Cleveland Plain Dealer
11
30%
San Jose Mercury News
11
30%
New Yorker
10
40%
New York Times
10
40%
Washington Post
10
40%
USA Today
10
40%
Harpers
9
50%
Time
9
50%
Reader's Digest
9
50%
“I notice that you use plain, simple
language, short words, and brief
sentences. That is the way to write
English—it is the modern way and
the best way. Stick to it; and don’t let
the fluff and flowers and verbosity
creep in.
“When you catch an adjective, kill
it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill
most of them—then the rest will be
valuable. They weaken when close
together. They give strength when
they are wide apart.”
Mark Twain
—Mark Twain, in a letter to a 12-
year-old boy.
Literacy Changes Lives
4. Matching Texts
The purpose of
plain language is to
close the gap
between the
reading level of the
text and the
reading ability of
the audience.
Readability
The feature of
plain language
that makes it easy
to read is called
readability.
Benefits of Readability
Greater readability increases:
 Comprehension (understanding)
 Retention (memory)
 Reading Speed
 Persistence (reading more of the text)
Compensation
Easier text can
compensate for
lower levels of prior
knowledge, reading
skill, interest, and
motivation.
Readability
Formulas
The readability
formulas
predict the level
of reading skill
required to read
a text.
Formula Accuracy
The popular
readability
formulas are 80
percent accurate.
They give a good
rough estimate of
the difficulty of a
text.
Rudolf Flesch
Rudolf Flesch caused a
revolution in journalism and
business writing in 1948 with
his book The Art of Plain Talk
and his Reading Ease
readability formula.
Microsoft Problems
Microsoft
Office
Readability
Statistics
Dale-Chall Formula 1948
Edgar Dale
Jeanne Chall
Edgar Dale and Jeanne Chall
created most accurate of all
formulas.
To measure word difficulty, it
counts the words not on a list
of 3,000 words familiar to
80% of fourth graders.
Robert Gunning’s Fog
Formula
Robert Gunning
Count 100 words
Grade Level = .4 X
(average sentence
length + number of hard
words)
Where:
Hard words = number of
words of more than two
syllables
Fry Readability Graph
Ed Fry
Formula Benefits
The readability
formulas have
provided great
benefits to millions
of readers
worldwide in
many languages.
Transforming Text
Writing for a class of readers
not one’s own is very
difficult. It takes training,
method, and lots of practice.
 When writing for such an
audience, confer frequently
with members of the
audience, before, during,
and after writing your text.

Don’t Write to the Formula!
Plain language requires
more than shortening
words and sentences.
You also have to adjust
other factors of style,
organization, tone,
approach, and design to
the reading habits of the
audience.
Content
Create and sustain
interest by appealing to
what the reader already
knows.
Lead the reader from the
known to the unknown,
from problems to
solutions.
Rhetoric
 Purpose
and outcome.
 Behavioral change.
 Persuasion and strategy.
A Readable Style
1. Short words and sentences.
2. Active voice.
3. Concrete nouns and action
verbs.
4. Direct, personal approach.
5. Imperative mood for
requirement.
Trim! Cut! Simplify!
Design
After content and
style, the design is
the next important
feature of
readability.
 Design includes
layout, typography,
and illustrations.

Graphic
Design
Study and use
the design of
materials
familiar to
your audience.
Clear Organization
Especially
important for:
1. Younger readers
2. Adults of lower
reading skills
3. Those unfamiliar
with the subject
Organization
I.
The lower the reading skill, the more important the
organization.
A. Outline form is very logical.
B. Narrative is like a story.
II.
Headings and indents show how elements are related
to one another.
A. Clear structure makes it easy to find
things.
B. It also makes things easier to learn and
remember.
Tone and
Approach
Use a tone and
approach
appropriate
for the
purpose and
the audience.
Review
I. What is plain language?
Plain Language is easy to understand
because it matches the reading level of the
audience.
Review
II. Know Your Reader
What the reader brings to the text is
1. Prior knowledge.
2. Reading skill.
3. Interest.
4. Motivation.
Review
III. Reading Skills
The average reader in the U. S. is an adult of
limited reading ability, who reads at the 9thgrade level.
Nearly one half of U.S. adults, or 104
million, read below that level.
Twenty-one percent, or 45 million adults,
read below the third-grade level.
Review
IV. Matching Texts
What the text brings to the reader is:
1. Content
2. Style
3. Design
4, Organization
“An honest tale
speeds best being
plainly told.”
—William Shakespeare
Web Resources



http://www.plainlanguage.gov
http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org
http://www.impact-information.com
For more information:
126 E. 18th St. #C204
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
949 631 3309
http://www.impact-information.com
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Using Readability Formulas