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Clear & Simple: Developing Effective Print Materials for Low-Literate Readers

  • Updated: 02/27/2003

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Many American Adults Lack Literacy Skills

According to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey, some 90 million American adults-- about 47 percent of the U.S. population-- demonstrate low levels of literacy. These individuals lack the literacy skills to function adequately in our increasingly complex society. Individuals with low or limited literacy may experience difficulty applying reading, writing, computational, and information processing skills to everyday life situations. While people with literacy problems may be found among all ethnicities, races, and classes, a significant correlation does exist between literacy, and both education and income levels.

Federal agencies often rely on print materials to tell people about health information and social services. Many of these materials are written at the 10th grade reading level and above. These materials are not useful to people with limited-literacy skills.

A workgroup composed of Government communicators from diverse Department of Health and Human Services' agencies met to address the disparity between the reading level of available print materials and the reading ability of many Americans. This set of guidelines, which was developed to assist writers in communicating effectively to low-literate audiences, is the result of their efforts.

About Clear and Simple

This guide outlines a process for developing publications for people with limited-literacy skills. The process was derived from communications, health education, and literacy research and practice. In addition, writers who have produced low-literacy materials contributed their expertise. Thus, the guide features both proven principles and a discussion of the real life issues that individuals developing low-literacy materials face, such as the constraints of time, budget, organizational pressures, and the Government publications process.

A review of existing examples and discussions with experienced writers makes it clear that the low-literacy field is an evolving discipline. Many definitions of "low-literacy" exist, and some products receive this designation incorrectly, simply because they test at a lower reading level. Even when the communicator pays careful attention to appropriate educational principles, the product may not exemplify perfectly these principles to all readers and reviewers. Deciding whether a passage or an illustration follows low-literacy guidelines and communicates effectively is a subjective judgment. This fact underscores the importance of testing all materials with the intended audience, whose understanding and acceptance is critical.

One writer summed up the challenge this way: "Everyone recognizes that we need to make print products more accessible to low-literate audiences. But developing low-literacy products is a major change from 'business as usual.' In some respects, it's like learning how to write, design, and test materials all over again."


The five standard steps in developing print materials are:

1. Define the target audience.

2. Conduct target audience research.

3. Develop a concept for the product.

4. Develop content and visuals.

5. Pretest and revise draft materials.

The following sections outline specific considerations for each
step in developing materials for readers with limited-literacy skills.