How to Use Plain Language to Improve Learning Outcomes

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This post explains how to use plain language guidelines to improve learning outcomes for instructional materials.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Introduction

My client was puzzled. The company had recently implemented a new human resources software tool that allowed managers to process employee transfers, promotions, and hires. The company had developed tutorials for the most complex tasks. They had also produced comprehensive job aids covering related tasks managers might need to perform. But months after the rollout, the number of daily help tickets remained high. Managers continued to bombard HR staff with phone calls and make many mistakes. The client hired me to identify the problem and recommend solutions.

The biggest issue I found in the needs analysis was that the client’s job aids were wordy and dense. They used “legalese” rather than everyday language. Finding information in the documents was difficult and took too much time. It was easier to submit a help ticket or call the HR staff.

Employees need at-a-glance information to help them perform on-the-job tasks. One way to make job aids and other learning materials more user-friendly is to follow plain language guidelines.

Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience is critical for effective instructional design. It’s more than knowing who the content is for; it’s understanding that audience thoroughly.

  • What does their typical work day look like?
  • What are their biggest job-related challenges and pain points?
  • What’s their education level?

The better you understand your learners, the better you can meet their needs. Target your writing to your audience. You will use different sentence structure and vocabulary for doctors than you would for fast food employees.

Keep It Simple

Even if you’re writing for doctors, bigger words and longer sentences do not equal better writing. Short, simple sentences with common language are generally best for everyone. The aim of plain writing is not to “dumb down” your information but to ensure that it is easy to read for your audience.

Limit the use of unfamiliar acronyms, initialisms, and jargon as much as possible—as appropriate for your audience. If you’re writing a course for experienced instructional designers, it makes sense to write “ADDIE” rather than “analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.”

It’s common practice to spell out a term the first time it’s used and then use the acronym thereafter. However, I’ve seen this advice taken to the extreme. I’ve worked with some federal government agencies whose documents read like a bowl of alphabet soup. Even if the audience understands all the acronyms, it can be daunting to read paragraphs like this:

The CLO and the SMEs want the ISD to create one SCO for each TLO and publish the WBT to xAPI on the LCMS. The JIT will be deployed through the EPSS, which will support OJT and provide the most ROI.

Make Sure It's Readable

Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check displays readability statistics.

  • The Flesch reading ease score calculates how easy the text is to read. The formula considers the number of words per sentence and syllables per word. Higher scores (60–100) are easy to read.
  • The Flesch-Kincaid grade level score translates the Flesch reading ease score to a U.S. grade level. This number indicates the years of education required to understand the text. Levels of 9th grade and below are considered easy to read.

If your audience uses complex words for their jobs, you may not achieve a very easy reading score. That’s okay. The important thing is to use language your audience understands.

Readability statistics from Microsoft Word showing a Flesch Reading Ease score of 59.3 and a grade level of 7.9.
Readability Statistics for This Post

Speak Directly to Your Audience

No matter how many people may read your document or take your course, remember you are speaking to one person at a time. When your writing reflects this, it’s more economical and has greater impact. Speaking directly to the user—as in the example below—makes the information more personal so it feels more applicable. 

Consider the example below. Notice how breaking up the process into steps helps clarify exactly what managers must do.

Unclear and Impersonal

Completion of Form 1082-A and supervisory approval, prior to filing the promotion application with HR and entering the action in the system, are required for managers wishing to request promotion of employees.

Readability Statistics

  • Flesch Reading Ease: 8.8
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 19.7

Clearer and More Direct

To promote an employee:

  1. Complete Form 1082-A.
  2. Obtain your supervisor’s signature on the form.
  3. Submit the form to HR.
  4. Enter the promotion in the system using the job aid.

Readability Statistics

  • Flesch Reading Ease: 63.5
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 6

If you have more than one audience, address each one separately. No one wants to wade through material meant for someone else.

Organize the Information

People read to get answers, so provide the information to them quickly using the “BLUF” concept: state the Bottom Line Up Front.

Clearly state what the course or document will help the learner achieve. Anticipate questions so you can clearly answer them. Most importantly, answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Use a table of contents in complex documents so readers can find what they need quickly. For courses, a graphic organizer helps orient learners.

Use headings and subheadings to organize content, break up blocks of text, and make it easy to find information. Using white space can also break up text and help learners find information quickly. Charts, graphs, and images provide at-a-glance visual information.

Eliminate filler and unnecessary information. As Cathy Moore advises, focus on the minimum that people need to know to complete the activity.

Summary

Following plain language guidelines can help ensure that learners are able to find information when they need it and absorb it. In this post, you learned the following tips:

  • Know your audience
  • Keep it simple
  • Make sure it’s readable
  • Speak directly to your audience
  • Organize the information

Read the second part of this post for more tips to improve readability, such as using active voice and precise language.

We Want to Hear from You!

What are your top tips for clear writing? What do you want to learn more about? Let us know in the comments!

Want to Learn More?

Here are a few resources you can use to improve your writing:

As an Amazon Affiliate, I receive a small amount if you purchase Patti Shank’s book from the above link. This does not affect your price.

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