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

  • Updated: 02/27/2003

Step I: Define the Target Audience

A target audience is the group of people the communicator wants to reach with a message. People with limited-literacy skills compose a broad target audience, crossing all ethnic and class boundaries. However, there are some common characteristics among low-literate audiences regarding how they interpret and process information.
  • Tendency to think in concrete/immediate rather than abstract/futuristic terms.
  • Literal interpretation of information.
  • Insufficient language fluency to comprehend and apply information from written materials.
  • Difficulty with information processing, such as reading a menu, interpreting a bus schedule, following medical instructions, or reading a prescription label.
It is important to keep these characteristics in mind as you develop materials.

While the above characteristics provide some basic understanding of people with limited-literacy skills, it is essential to learn more about your audience as people, not just as statistics or generalizations. Target audiences may be defined by age, sex, marital status, educational level, occupation, income, religion, race, ethnicity, language, geographic location, lifestyle, health-related attitudes and behaviors, and many other characteristics. Understanding these factors is critical because audience characteristics influence each step in the process of developing low-literacy materials. The National Cancer Institute's (NCI) Making Health Communication Programs Work: A Planner's Guide (1989) provides further details on how you can define your target audience.

Questions You May Have About Defining the Audience

How do I decide whether I need to develop a low-literacy product versus a regular publication at a lower reading level?

The key criterion is a need to reach individuals with very poor or marginal written communication skills. These groups are distinct from general public audiences who may profit from materials written in simple language but who probably do not need special low-literacy-readers' aids and educational devices to comprehend a message.

A variety of factors can suggest a need to focus specifically on low-literate readers. One planner based her decision to target this group on an analysis of public knowledge of her topic, cancer prevention. Surveys repeated at 3-year intervals showed little-to-no gain in knowledge among some audiences despite ambitious public information campaigns designed at the 9th to 10th grade reading level. "That said to me that messages directed to the general public weren't getting through to all of the target audience," this program professional explained. "We decided to develop a prevention message specially targeted to low-literate Americans because demographic profiles and our experience had shown that this was a group our earlier campaigns could well have missed."

Another cancer prevention project also used available data to help identify its target audience. In this case, data showing that hard-core smokers were more likely to have lower educational levels argued for conveying a stop-smoking message in low-literacy format.

Once you decide that you need to reach readers with limited-literacy skills, then you can define that audience more specifically vis รก vis your messages.

Can I communicate effectively to people with average or good reading skills by using a low-literacy format?

Testing your product with the audience is the only way to find out. The experiences and opinions of those in the field vary on this point. Some have found that better educated information seekers will not even pick up a product that clearly is aimed at a basic level. Others say that all readers appreciate a message conveyed simply and clearly and that those readers who want more detail can be directed to sources of more indepth information.