Your guide to plain language and Easy English writing.

Almost half of the people living in Australia struggle with literacy and numeracy.

Pausing a moment, just to let that sink in.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 44% of Australians have low English literacy levels, rising to 54% for numeracy, and to 69% for digital.

Literacy tends to be lower among older people and among people with less formal education.

As communicators, making sure we convey meaning to our intended audience may, more often than we think, mean making accessibility first, and not an afterthought. Those who don’t could be missing almost half the people who need to understand what it is they are a saying.

Often this is critical in contexts where what is being communicated is about health, rights, or essential products and services (for example, energy, water, waste, finance and, increasingly, telecommunications). In these cases, people who aren’t given information they can easily understand can be unfairly disadvantaged, or even harmed.

Whether its government, a charity or business that is doing the talking, reaching broad audiences requires communicators to consider ways to remove the barriers created by jargon, technicality and complexity. The higher your legal or ethical obligation to your audience, on a specific issue or communication, the more necessary plain language communication becomes.

Consider a hospital discharging a patient, a charity promoting healthy eating, or a mobile phone business communicating key consumer rights. In any of these contexts, would it be fair that someone with lower literacy – or almost half the potential audience – misses out simply because the information has been poorly communicated?

As communicators, its our role to make the process of taking away meaning easier. Considering language choices, as well as form, structure and substance, the principles for Plain Language and Easy English communications give us some answers on how to make what we say clear and meaningful for diverse audiences.

Plain language and Easy English, explained.

Plain language and Easy English communication are two different approaches to accessible communications.

Plain language promotes choices of using language the audience understands, presented in short and active sentences, structured in a way the audience can follow.

According to the International Plain Language Federation, communication is in plain language if the vocabulary, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find and use that information.

Plain language can be used in any form of communication – fact sheets, brochures, advertising, media, letters, forms, surveys, reports, web and social media content – internal and external, formal and informal. Provided your primary goal is to be understood, it’s likely a plain language principle, or two, will apply. This is largely because all of us, of any literacy level, benefit from communication that is clear and to the point, and thoughtfully structured relative to our needs.

This is not the same as saying you must never use any jargon, and never have any fun with words. But it is a reminder that you must consider the needs of your audiences, first. A niche, technical audience may love your industry-speak (or you might be surprised to find they are refreshed by your plain language approach too). A poet may enjoy that different audiences take away a different meaning from their work. Having empathy of the needs of your audience, and where their goals align with yours, will enable you to decide where plain language is critical, or just preferable, or how best to combine a creative approach with a pragmatic one.

Easy English takes plain language one step further, removing even more barriers to understanding. Developed by disability support organisation Scope Australia, it combines language and imagery to provide understandable, concise information.

The Easy English approach enables information to be more readily understood by those that have difficulty with spoken or written language skills for working out and conveying meaning. It addresses those with limited ability and flexibility to take knowledge and apply it, that may arise for a number of different reasons:

  • an intellectual or cognitive disability
  • a learning disability
  • an acquired disability (such as a stroke, brain injury or degenerative condition)
  • poor educational outcomes
  • reduced exposure to literacy in adult life
  • low vision
  • ageing
  • culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

Key considerations for writing in plain language and Easy English.

Both plain language and Easy English require modifying language, sentences, content structure and design to make information more accessible.

To start we suggest adhering to the following plain language principles:

  • basic language (cut excessive detail, slang, jargon, acronyms)
  • simple sentence structures
  • verbs rather than nouns
  • active tense
  • key headings
  • bullet lists
  • simple, accessible fonts
  • lots of white space
  • considering colour, numbering and labelling that makes document wayfinding easier.

Easy English simplifies information further, reducing more barriers to understanding. It presents key information rather than all the detail and uses images to enhance the message for the reader.

Overarching principles include:

  • Words are combined with commonly-recognised images to convey a simple message.
  • Using the most basic form of a word – think ‘help’ rather than ‘support’, or ‘doctor’ rather than ‘specialist’.
  • Keeping punctuation to a minimum (no brackets, hyphens, etc.).
  • Simple fonts, layout and design (e.g. high contrast colours, a lot of white space).
  • For printed material choosing thick matt paper – shiny paper can make a document more difficult to read, and pages need to be easy to grasp and turn as some readers may have limited fine motor skills.

Importantly, Easy English is not a “dumbed down” version of the original document. Readers using your Easy English material still need to know the key facts and have enough information to make informed decision.

Writing your communications in plain language and Easy English will ensure you are welcoming and inclusive of all people.

At Ellis Jones, we apply plain language principles in our work, every day, and recently partnered with disability services provider Scope Australia to create Easy English translations for some of our clients.

Get in touch, and together we can determine how to make meaningful communications that leaves no one out.