Content accessibility part 1: Speak plainly

By Hannah Collins

18 May 2022

What is plain English and why is it so important for inclusive government services? Find out in part 1 of our series on content accessibility.

‘Reading age of 9’ is a phrase you hear a lot in the public sector. (Generally preceded by a swear word.) And look. I get it. It’s not easy making government policies and processes easy to read.

But the phrase ‘reading age of 9’ can be misleading. It does not mean you are targeting your content at 9-year-olds. And it’s something all organisations must work towards to make their content accessible and inclusive.

Who decided on a reading age of 9?

The standard comes from the Government Digital Service (GDS). It’s used for all content on GOV.UK, and it is based on the average reading age in the UK. According to the National Literacy Trust:

  • 1 in 7 adults in England have literacy levels at or below Entry Level 3. This is equal to the literacy skills expected of a nine to 11-year-old.
  • 1 in 6 adults in England, and 1 in 5 adults in Northern Ireland, have literacy levels at or below Level 1, or 'very poor literacy skills'.

As well as this:

GOV.UK aims for a reading age of 9 because they are writing for the lowest literacy level of their audience. This ensures that everybody can access government services.

What does writing for a reading age of 9 involve?

By the time children are 9, they have a basic vocabulary of about 5,000 words in place. They read these common words by recognising their shape, not reading them letter-by-letter. And according to GOV.UK, adults still find these words easier to recognise and understand than words they’ve learned since. Writing for a reading age of 9 isn’t the same as writing for a 9-year-old.

It’s about making sure your content is quick to scan, easy to read and simple to understand. Writing in this way is called plain English.

Case study: Scotland’s Census

We recently worked with National Records of Scotland (NRS) to redesign the Scotland’s Census website. NRS had to make sure all people in Scotland can access and understand census information. Plain English was an important consideration.

Take a look at pages relating to languages spoken in Scotland before we redesigned the website and after the website redesign.

What changed?

If you look at these two pages, you’ll notice the words used are not that different. The new version is missing a few complex terms, but the biggest change is to the structure of the content.

In redesigning the pages we:

  • used section dividers, lists, short sentences and bold text to divide content into ‘chunks’
  • added summary text at the top of the page to tell people what to expect
  • removed distracting side-navigation elements
  • placed headers on the left to support scanning and an F-shaped reading pattern

Writing for specialist audiences

Right now you might be thinking, “That’s all well and good for GOV.UK and the census, but my audience is highly literate.”

Here’s what GDS has to say about that: Government experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they do not need to use plain English. This is wrong.

“Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible. For example, research into use of specialist legal language in legal documents found:

  • 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English ­– and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference (for example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the Latin ‘inter alia’)
  • the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English”

The frazzled doctor check

What's the busiest, most stressful job you can think of? An emergency department doctor has got to be on that list, right?

Imagine that doctor is reading information you've written about some new medical equipment. It's really important they understand how to use that equipment before they treat a patient with it.

  • The easier your content is to read, the less time they need to spend with it
  • The simpler it is to understand, the more likely it is they will take away something valuable from it

Think about who your 'doctor' is when writing for specialist audiences. You can influence their time, their understanding and their actions with plain English.

How we can help

Get in touch today to talk to us about how our expert user-centred design team can support your project.

Resources and further reading

The information in this post is based on the writing for GOV.UK section of the GDS style guide. You might also be interested in:

Thanks to National Records of Scotland for their permission to share the examples in this piece.

(And in case you were wondering. This blog is written in plain English.)