Introduction to Plain Language
© 2006 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
1. What is Plain Language?
Plain language is language
that is easy for the audience to
understand.
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.
 They may seek help or call support.
 They often 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
 Increased
audience size.
 Greater customer satisfaction.
 Reduced costs of training,
document production, and 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. Prior Knowledge
2. Interest
3. Motivation
4. Literacy (reading skill)
Make Use of Prior Knowledge
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.
Text
Design
Study and use
the design of
materials
familiar to
your audience.
Tone and
Approach
Use a tone and
approach
appropriate
for the
purpose and
the audience.
Clear Organization
is especially
important for:
1. Younger readers
2. Adults of lower
reading skills
3. Those unfamiliar
with the subject
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 Health
Problems caused by low
reading ability add an
additional $73 billion
yearly to health-care
costs.
Good readers take more
responsibility for their
own health.
Literacy and
Power
Knowledge is key to
establishing and maintaining
power relationships.
Furthermore, literacy is 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. A quarter of the
population does not graduate
from high school.
The average adult in the U.S.
reads at the 8th-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
All wrote at the 7th-grade level
1. Romance fiction is written at
Romance Novels
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.
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.
Huckleberry Finn
"Now," says Ben Rogers, "what's the line of business of this Gang?"
"Nothing only robbery and murder," Tom said.
"But who are we going to rob? -- houses, or cattle, or -- "
"Stuff! Stealing cattle and such things ain't robbery; it's burglary,"
says Tom Sawyer. "We ain't burglars. That ain't no sort of style. We
are highwaymen. We stop stages and carriages on the road, with
masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money."
"Must we always kill the people?"
"Oh, certainly. It's best. Some authorities think different, but mostly
it's considered best to kill them -- except some that you bring to the
cave here, and keep them till they're ransomed."
"Ransomed? What's that?"
“I don't know. But that's what they do. I've seen it in books; and so
of course that's what we've got to do."
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 text
that makes it easy
to read is called
readability.
Benefits of Readability
Improved 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.
Flesch Publication Scores
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.
Formula Validity
According to reading
experts, the
readability formulas
correlate highly with
comprehension as
measured by reading
tests.
 The formulas are
frequently used in
research and are
admitted in court
testimony.

Don’t Write to the Formula!
Plain language requires
more than shortening
words and sentences.
You also have to adjust
the style, organization,
tone, approach, and
design to the reading
habits of the audience.
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.

Design
After content and
style, the design is
the next important
feature of readability.
 Design includes
layout, typography,
and illustrations.
 Design must match
reading materials
familiar to the
audience.

Review
I. What is plain language?
Plain Language is easy for the audience to
understand.
Review
II. Know Your Reader
Plain Language matches the prior
knowledge, interest, motivation and reading
skill of the audience.
Review
III. Reading Skills
The average reader in the U. S. is an adult of
limited reading ability.
The average adult reads at the 8th-grade,
middle-school level.
Review
IV. Matching Texts
The purpose of plain language is to reduce
the gap between the reading skills of the
audience and the reading level of the text.
“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