In my last blog I explained the effect Easy Read and Plain English techniques have on sentence length, according to my recent research. Now I look at whether Easy Read uses easier, more familiar words, and whether adaptation makes Easy Read words easier to understand.
The Easy Read research
48 Easy Read documents were analysed, half of which were Easy Read versions of unadapted texts. The documents were information leaflets and reports, published by The UK Government, NHS, local councils, charities and others.
The documents were analysed using multidimensional measures of text complexity, using a software tool developed from reading theory, word data bases and indices generated within the sampled texts. Linguistic and discourse features were counted and produced as numerical scores.
Textual characteristics were then analysed manually (discourse analysis), to find out more about the text characteristics, and what this might mean for people with language and cognitive processing difficulties.
Here I will concentrate on the numerical scores. The results show the average (mean) scores for the documents overall, but there was high variation both within and across the documents.
Scores generated from data bases can only give a general guide, as they reflect the perspective of adults without language impairment.
Easy Read advice
Easy Read and Plain English guidelines advise writers to use short sentences, easy words and simple language. Easy Read documents were analysed, but the techniques are also found in information adapted using Plain English.
Easy Read adaptations led to significant reductions in the average number of letters and syllables of words.
There were significant increases in word frequency, with measurements based on word data bases.
Word familiarity and meaningfulness
There were significant increases in word familiarity and meaningfulness, with measurements based on word data bases.
Concrete words are easier to illustrate than abstract words. A measure of word concreteness showed a small decrease in word concreteness.
There was a significant increase in the use of pronouns, especially the second person ‘you’ and third person plural ‘they’.
Repetition of words (lexical diversity) led to a significant decrease in the diversity of all words in Easy Read documents.
Contributing to these scores was a significant increase in the use of the general nouns ‘people’, ‘something’ and ‘things’, indicating a tendency for Easy Read writers to replace specific nouns with a general noun.
Are Easy Read words easier to understand?
Easy Read writers are successful in using shorter, familiar, ‘easy’ words, and direct, personal language, such as ‘you’, as recommended by the guidelines.
Researchers have questioned whether shorter, more frequent words are better – what is important is whether your audience understands the words, and whether the concepts – not just the words – are familiar.
Have a look at this example of the word ‘band’, which may be familiar to your reader, but is used with an unfamiliar meaning (concept) in a Council Easy Read housing guide:
The council will check your application
Then you will be put into a band
Low skilled readers are more likely to read sentences out of context, and focus on key words. If you want to be on X Factor, it looks like your dreams are coming true! But confusing and disorientating if you thought you were reading about housing.
The words ‘people’, ‘somethings’ and ‘things’ are familiar, and are very popular substitutions for ‘difficult’ words in Easy Read. There are also fairly abstract words, with little specific meaning. The increase in use of these words leads to a loss in meaning and coherence, and creates ambiguity in some Easy Read documents, which increases processing demands.
The increased use of pronouns also decreased coherence, and sometimes increased ambiguity, which increased processing load, as readers have to match pronouns to their referents. Readers of unadapted documents have less pronouns, so have to do less processing work.
In other words, contrary to what we’d expect, Easy Read techniques can make information harder to understand for people with low literacy and language difficulties.
As with a reduction in sentence length, these writing ideas have arisen from subjective preferences of skilled readers, and not research based on the needs of people with poor functional literacy and disabilities.
Adaptation isn’t making the ideas expressed in the documents any more concrete, so ideas are not easier to illustrate.
The expectations of Easy Read
Ah – you may be thinking – but what if your reader doesn’t understand the vocabulary in the unadapted version? We have a predicament – using generic words reduces meaning, not just for the reader, but also for their family and carers. But adding a word definition or a glossary increases text length and processing load considerably.
Would you find it easy to understand a document that had lots of words that you didn’t understand? Would you persevere if you were constantly having to flick to the back of the document to find a definition?
People with learning difficulties are unlikely to learn what a concept means from reading a single definition. Repetition, learning by doing and relevance to daily life are all important.
Word concreteness in Easy Read changed little because changing words or shortening sentences cannot change the underlying concepts or ideas of a document. If we want to provide adapted information, planning must start by looking at the content and purpose of the document, and the corresponding language and cognitive processing demands placed on the reader.
If you have any questions about my research, or you’d like to know more about adapting language, please get in touch.
Next blog I’ll be looking at whether Easy Read makes language simpler.