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Three Cheers for Plain Language
By Natalie Ames, MSW, EdD

As a social work educator, I read a lot of student papers. I’d like to share an observation about the kind of writing students learn to do in college: Higher education customarily encompasses instructional strategies and techniques that promulgate and reward unnecessarily esoteric inclusion of professionally specific articulations and convoluted expressions of language devoid of clarity which are incomprehensible to those unassociated with said linguistic articulations. 

Did the length of the preceding sentence and the number of long words it includes impress you? I suspect not. You probably found it bewildering, unintelligible, and annoying, so let me state my observation in plain language: Higher education encourages students to use professional jargon and fancy academic language that most people can’t understand. 

Before I became a teacher, I practiced social work for many years in both public and nonprofit agencies. I gave my clients countless application forms, eligibility guidelines, brochures, pamphlets, flyers, and booklets. I never thought about whether they could read and understand that information. It wasn’t until I began writing a series of low-literacy fact sheets that I recognized the huge gap between the printed information social service agencies give their clients and the plain language clients are most likely to be able and willing to read.

There is a place for professional jargon. It’s the language that makes us insiders in our agencies. It allows us to communicate easily with other social workers. That works for us, but the unfortunate consequence is that it makes everyone else outsiders. It’s easy to forget that clients, the general public, and even professionals from other disciplines, may not understand us when we use social work jargon in our verbal or written communications. 

There’s also a place for fancy academic language although I would argue that many textbooks and journal articles would benefit from less fancy academic lingo and more plain language. After all, no matter what you’re writing, isn’t the objective to get your point across to your readers? That discussion, however, is a topic for another day. What I’d like to focus on here is how to use plain language to increase the readability of the print materials social service agencies provide to their clients. Whenever we use print to communicate with clients, I believe we should use plain language.

Plain Language and Readability
Plain language is “… clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary” (Eagleson, 1990, p. 4). Plain language means choosing a short word even if you know a long word that means the same thing. Plain language combines short words in short sentences that readers can easily follow. Plain language means avoiding acronyms. For example, most social workers know that TANF is the acronym for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and that SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The average person is likely to know these programs as “welfare” and “food stamps.” 

Plain language also means avoiding the jargon that a particular profession uses. For example, if you use terms such as empowerment, intimate partners, at-risk youth, or strengths-based assessment with other social workers, that’s one thing. If your agency includes them in the materials it provides to clients or the general public, it’s time to consider revising those materials and substituting plain language.

I know this isn’t what you learned in school. If you graduated from a typical social work education program, you probably got good grades for papers that included a lot of long words incorporated into enough complex sentences to fill a specified number of pages. The problem is, after graduation, social workers often continue to use the same style of writing they used as students. When you begin your career in a social service agency, no one tells you that changing the way you write would help you communicate more effectively with clients. So I’m here to tell you now that whenever you write something you expect clients to read, your goal should be readability. Readability means the ease with which most people can read and understand your writing. The more you use plain language, the more readable your writing will be. 

Why Does Readability Matter?
Most social service agencies serve clients who are poor, and we know that poverty and low educational attainment often go hand-in-hand (Corley, 2003; White & Dillow, 2005). The National Assessment of Adult Literacy estimates that 47% of adults who receive public assistance did not graduate from high school and that approximately 70% of these individuals have limited literacy skills (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Additionally, many individuals read several grade levels lower than the highest grade they completed in school (Arnold et al., 2006; Doak, Doak, & Root, 1996; National Work Group on Literacy and Health, 1998). If you keep these facts in mind, you can see why it’s so important to consider the readability of your agency’s materials. 

What the Research Tells Us
There isn’t much research on the readability of the print materials social service agencies give to clients, but the research that has been done indicates agencies could do better. Much better. The earliest study on this topic looked at the forms, pamphlets, and instructions from a large urban public welfare agency and found that half were written at the college reading level (Mavrogenes, Hanson, & Winkley, 1977). Sadly, it appears there hasn’t been a lot progress in the intervening years. A 2009 study that assessed the readability of Medicaid applications in 49 states found that the text on the signature pages ranged from 11th to 18th grade reading levels and that 66 percent did not follow accepted low-literacy guidelines for layout (Wilson, Wallace, & DeVoe, 2009). Online materials fare no better. An analysis of fact sheets and “frequently asked questions” on the websites of 35 state domestic violence coalitions found that all were written well above the U. S. Department of Education’s recommended 8th grade level for public education materials (Yick, 2008). The mean reading grade level of a series of internet brochures on children’s mental health was 13.23 (King, Winton, & Adkins, 2003).

At this point, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the majority of social service agency websites are not designed with readability in mind (Friedmeyer-Trainor, Vernon, & Lynch, 2012; Vernon & Lynch, 2003). In other words, they may be difficult for the average person to read and understand and incomprehensible for those with limited literacy skills. If your agency serves low-income individuals, it’s especially important that your website be both readable and accessible. If it is readable for people with limited literacy skills, then it will be easy for others to use as well. 

As for accessibility, if you use a laptop or desktop computer, you probably take for granted high-speed Internet access. The only device many low-income individuals have for connecting to the Internet is their smartphones (Zikuhr & Smith, 2012). A phone’s small screen and slow connection time make it difficult to download and read large amounts of information. This means that social service agency websites should use plain language and as few words as possible to convey important information.

If your agency is distributing material your clients can’t read and understand, whether in print or online, it’s wasting time, effort, and money. This is probably a good time to mention that using plain language in the materials your agency provides to clients is not what some people call “dumbing down.” Rather, it is consistent with the ethical principle of respecting “the inherent dignity and worth of the person” because it takes into account “individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity” (NASW, 2008, p. 5). 

What You Can Do
You can improve the readability of your agency’s print materials by incorporating more plain language. Before you begin, however, I should warn you that this kind of change may meet some resistance. I once worked for someone who ordered our agency’s receptionist to hide a plain-language brochure under her desk because he feared that displaying it openly in the waiting area would make the agency “look bad.” It took some persuading to change his mind. 

Once your agency’s staff is on board, the first step is to identify and list all the jargon and acronyms in your agency’s existing materials—applications, program descriptions, pamphlets, brochures, and any other printed or electronic information you provide to clients and/or the general public. Remember that jargon is any field-specific language you use in your agency or with other social workers. Acronyms are a form of jargon. Most acronyms that social workers use are just as unfamiliar to the average person as our professional and agency jargon. 

Once you’ve listed the jargon and acronyms in your agency’s materials, the next step is to come up with plain-language substitutions. As you begin working on this, think about how you would explain each term you identified to a person who had never heard the term before. Below are a few examples of jargon from social service agency pamphlets with plain language “translations” in parentheses:

• developmentally appropriate activities (the right activities for a child’s age);

• fatherhood initiative (a program to teach fathers how to be better parents);

• interpersonal skills (being able to get along with other people);

• natural support systems (friends and family members who can help you);

• screening and assessment (finding out what you need); and

• termination of assistance (you can no longer receive help from this program).

If you can assist your agency to incorporate more plain language in the materials it gives to clients, you will have provided something of lasting value to your agency and to its current and future clients. So take a deep breath, and let’s hear three cheers for plain language.

— Natalie Ames, MSW, EdD, is an associate professor in the department of social work at North Carolina State University. 

Arnold, C. L., Davis, T. C., Frempong, J.O., Humiston, S. G., Bocchini, A., Kennen, E. M., et al. (2006). Assessment of newborn screening parent education materials. Pediatrics, 117(5), S320-S325. 

Corley, M. A. (2003). Poverty, racism, and literacy.  ERIC Digest.  file://localhost/Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov:PDFS:ED475392.pdf.

Doak, C. C., Doak, L. G., & Root, J. (1996). Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

Eagleson, R.D. (1990). Writing in plain English. Canberra, Australia: Australian Government. Publication Service. 

Friedmeyer-Trainor, K., Vernon, R., & Lynch, D. (2012). Accessibility and agency website design: Stumbling backwards? A Follow-Up Study.  Journal of Technology in Human Services, 30(2), 59-71. 

King, M., Winton, A., & Adkins, A. (2003). Assessing the readability of mental health internet brochures for children and adolescents. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 12(1), 91-99.

Mavrogenes, N., Hanson, E., & Winkley, C. (1977). But can the client understand it? Social Work, 22, 110-112.

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/default.asp.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). National Assessment of Adult Literacy. U. S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/naal/.

National Work Group on Literacy and Health. (1998). Communicating with patients who have limited literacy skills. Report of the National Work Group on Literacy and Health. Journal of Family Practice, 46, 168-176.

Vernon, R., & Lynch, D. (2003). Consumer access to agency websites: Our best foot forward? Journal of Technology in Human Services, 21(4), 37-51.

White, S., & Dillow, S. (2005). Key Concepts and Features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2006-471). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Wilson, J. M., Wallace, L. S., & DeVoe, J. E. (2009). Are state Medicaid application enrollment forms readable? Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 20, 423–431.

Yick, A. (2008). Evaluating readability of domestic violence information found on domestic violence state coalitions’ websites. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26(1), 67-74.

Zikuhr, K., & Smith, A. (2012). Digital differences. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from http://pewInternet.org/Reports/2012/Digital-differences.aspx.