Do bullet points make reading easier?

Bulleted lists are a very popular plain English and Easy Read technique, and are often recommended in guidelines.

But what if bullet points are really one long sentence? And are lower literacy readers familiar with bullet points, or do they think they are large full stops in the wrong place?

Some Easy Read guidelines recommend only using the ‘simplest’ punctuation – is the use of bullet points contrary to this advice? Do lower literacy readers, unfamiliar with the convention, simply ignore the meaning of the punctuation, and carry on regardless?

I decided to investigate whether bullet points make reading difficult for people with low literacy and communication disabilities.

Recounting words in bullet points

I looked at 12 Easy Read texts. By interpreting bulleted lists as a single, long sentence, the average sentence length of all 12 documents increased – the sentence length of one document almost doubled.

Three of the 12 Easy Read documents had longer average sentence lengths than their unadapted equivalents. For two of these three, the average was 24 words – exceeding the Easy Read recommended maximum of 20 words.

One document which scored below 20 for average sentence length included a sentence of 145 words.

Although average sentence lengths do not tell us about the complexity of the language, these figures are still surprising. I doubt such changes are unusual, as bullet points are common in plain English and Easy Read.

The language within bullet points

I copied Easy Read text from a finished document to a Word document, so that I could focus on the exact language that the reader had to interpret. I changed the bullet points to commas, and set out each sentence in a conventional, linear way. This made the language look quite different.

I noticed several things. First, there were some very long sentences – sentences of 100 words or more are not unusual in Easy Read.

A bulleted list can be a collection of complete, related sentences. But often it is a list of phrases which all share the same first part of the sentence. Here’s a short example, adapted from a council document:

The National Autism Strategy says councils must:

  • Include people with autism
  • Give someone the job of ‘Autism Lead’. This person is in charge of the National Autism Strategy
  • Train GPs and care staff

Every sentence has a subject, which is what the sentence is about. The three bulleted points above have the same subject – it’s the National Autism Strategy. Each bulleted point on its own hasn’t got a subject, therefore each bullet point isn’t a complete sentence.

To understand the bullet points fully, the reader has to hold the first part of the sentence, the National Autism Strategy, in memory, as they read and process each bullet point. The reader could glance back to the beginning of the sentence, to remind them what the subject is, but if the reader is unfamiliar with the function of bullet points, do they know they can do this to check the meaning?

As the list gets longer the subject of each bullet point gets further and further away.

Sometimes lists are so long the subject is on the previous page, or the one before that. That’s a big load on memory, and a big load on cognitive processing. We’re asking a lot of people who have low literacy or language disability, many of whom will have underlying cognitive difficulties.

Note too how the definition of ‘Autism Lead’ in point 2 increases the difficulty in matching point 3 with its subject. To find the subject at point 3 you don’t have to just go up the list, you have to circumnavigate the definition. We have an entire sentence within another sentence. The reader has to put subject 1 (the National Autism Strategy) on hold while they interpret sentence 2 (which has its own subject), then back to subject 1.

Because the bulleted points all have the same subject, we can write the same sentence in a more conventional way:

The National Autism Strategy says councils must include people with autism, give someone the job of ‘Autism Lead’ (this person is in charge of making sure the National Autism Strategy is followed in their area), and train GPs and care staff.

This sentence has 42 words – way over the Plain English and Easy Read recommended maximum of 20.

What’s this information about?

If you can’t find, or can’t remember, the subject of a bullet point, or you don’t understand the convention represented by a black dot before a phrase, you can’t understand the intended meaning. The meaning is narrowed to the words within the phrase, rather than understanding the phrase within the context it is intended.

Bullet points confuse writers too

In my small sample, there were several examples of bad grammar. By bad grammar, I mean sentences which are not conventional, logical or consistent in their use of grammar, so that the intended meaning is difficult (or impossible) to interpret.

Illogical sentences can be a consequence of editing, but I think the use of bullet points increases the likelihood of error. Bullet points fracture sentences, separating parts of the sentence by visual markers, space and other design features.

Here is an example from an Easy Read report:

What the council needs to do:

  • get the right information

The information is structured in a complex way, and it is not grammatical. It may not matter for a skilled reader, but a person who struggles with literacy needs as much support as we can give them, and that includes well structured, coherent sentences.

In this case, the bulleted point can be replaced with a shorter, simpler sentence:

The council needs to get the right information

I also found examples of inconsistent use of pronouns within bulleted lists, which may be a result of the writer losing track of the sentence subject.

Design can also contribute to difficulty. In one document, the subject of the bullet list was blocked in one colour, whilst the list itself was blocked in another colour. This contributed to the disconnection between the bulleted points, and their subject.

All these features could cause the writer to lose the thread of logic through the list, leading to inconsistent and illogical grammar.

Bullet points change meaning

Bullet points also change the function of the phrase. Many bulleted points, if read in isolation (because you’ve not processed the preceding sentence subject), could be interpreted as directives, telling the reader what to do:

Include lots of different people

If the subject is not apparent, we don’t know who is including people – the reader is left to work it out for themselves. Usually directives like this are aimed at ‘you’, the listener, so this would be a logical interpretation to make.

The subject of the sentence is actually the organisation, but the use of bullet points obscures this information from the reader – especially weak readers.

Why research matters

Popular plain English and Easy Read writing techniques have a weak theoretical base for people with lower literacy and communication disabilities. Research is sometimes decades old, and did not involve people with communication difficulties.

What makes reading easier for skilled readers can make reading more difficult for unskilled readers.

The use, or over-use, of bulleted lists in Easy Read is a good example of why this matters. Research with people with communication disability has found that bullet points can be confusing. Easy Read is using techniques that have not been developed for its target audience, and have not been evaluated in controlled conditions.

Making information easier

Bulleted items are sometimes lists of complete sentences, but more usually the items are not separate sentences. The bulleted lists popular in Easy Read tend to be single, long sentences, made up of associated words and phrases, in vertical lists. These long lists have low coherence, and increase demands on working memory and processing times, increasing difficulty for people with communication needs.

We need to move away from focusing on words and sentence length, to understand how ideas are expressed in language, and how sentences and whole texts work to convey meaning to our readers.

If you’d like to review your accessible information, or find out more about evidence based adaptations, please get in touch.

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