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

  • Updated: 02/27/2003

Step 4: Develop Content and Visuals

Once you have agreed on a product concept, you can begin outlining and writing the first draft. The content information you include will be based in part on the audience needs and interests identified in your research.

In preparing your draft, it will be important to tailor content, layout, and the use of visuals to the needs of a reader with poor reading and communication skills. What does this mean in concrete terms? Low-literacy experts have identified key principles for developing effective materials for this audience. These principles are summarized in the checklist below. You can use this list as you are developing a new publication and as a doublecheck in reviewing product drafts.


  • Key Principles of Effective Low-Literacy Print Materials
  • Examples of Effective Communication
Many organizations have developed products that illustrate effective use of the checklist guidelines. This section discusses each communication principle on the checklist in more detail and provides examples of their use in existing products. A complete listing of products can be viewed by clicking on the following links:


  • The material is interactive and allows for audience involvement.
  • The material presents "how-to" information.
  • Peer language is used whenever appropriate to increase personal identification and improve readability.
  • Words are familiar to the reader. Any new words are defined clearly.
  • Sentences are simple, specific, direct, and written in the active voice.
  • Each idea is clear and logically sequenced (according to audience logic).
  • The number of concepts is limited per piece.
  • The material uses concrete examples rather than abstract concepts.
  • The text highlights and summarizes important points.


  • The material uses advance organizers or headers.
  • Headers are simple and close to text.
  • Layout balances white space with words and illustrations.
  • Text uses upper and lower case letters.
  • Underlining or bolding rather than all caps give emphasis.
  • Type style and size of print are easy-to-read; type is at least 12 point.


  • Visuals are relevant to text, meaningful to the audience, and appropriately located.
  • Illustrations and photographs are simple and free from clutter and distraction.
  • Visuals use adult rather than childlike images.
  • Illustrations show familiar images that reflect cultural context.
  • Visuals have captions. Each visual illustrates and is directly related to one message.
  • Different styles, such as photographs without background detail, shaded line drawings, or simple line drawings, are pretested with the audience to determine which is understood best.
  • Cues, such as circles or arrows, point out key information.
  • Colors used are appealing to the audience (as determined by pretesting)


  • Readability analysis is done to determine reading level.

Questions You May Have About Content Development

Technical terms raise the reading level of a publication. Do low-literate readers need to know them? Will they understand them?

There is no absolute answer to this question. Pichert and Elam point out that when technical terms are used in the reader's daily life, they can be as familiar as any other words. For example, an older American will know the terms "Social Security benefits," and a person with diabetes will be accustomed to technical words such as "insulin" and "reaction."

When a text does include technical terms, some writers suggest putting a simple explanation next to the term. They believe a glossary approach may add to the low-literate reader's difficulty in getting through the text. People may not realize that unfamiliar words are defined in a separate section.

Many practitioners feel that the "need to know" criterion is an important one to apply to this decision. "If my objective is to increase the use of mammography, I have to use that term," one writer says. "But if I'm asking people with HIV to take AIDS - delaying actions, does the audience need to know the term 'opportunistic infection'? I chose to avoid the term, and pretesting showed that the audience understood what they needed to do to avoid infections without learning it."

How can I keep material on technical topics simple throughout an expert and/or organizational review process?

Every writer interviewed for these guidelines had experienced this concern. The simplicity of effective low-literacy products is startling to many reviewers, especially those accustomed to sci- entific or technical publications. They often are unfamiliar with low-literacy techniques and may be concerned that a product written at a low reading level may reflect poorly on the expertise of an agency or organization.

Several writers suggested ways to work constructively with reviewers on this issue. Ideas include:
  • Educate reviewers about the need and scientific foundation for low-literate writing techniques.
  • Involve reviewers at the concept development stage so that they are not surprised at the draft they receive.
  • Make sure that all simple explanations are accurate. Do not distort the scientific or technical facts as you pare away the details.
  • Work personally with the reviewers. If a suggested change is inappropriate, discuss both of your concerns and work cooperatively toward a solution.
  • Test reviewer-inserted concepts, specifically during prepublication evaluations. If the reviewer's idea does not work with the audience, you will have a firm basis for change.

Are pictorial signs, symbols, and charts more effective than words for a low-literate reader?

Not necessarily. Some experts suggest that "universal" symbols, such as a stop sign, an arrow, or a big black "X" usually test well with this audience. When a pictorial representation is open to interpretation, however, it can fail to communicate with any audience. Likewise, while a simple chart may work well, a large matrix or visually busy schema are likely to confuse. For example, functionally illiterate individuals have trouble using a bus schedule.

I know that low-literate products should focus only on a few key concepts. How do I handle a complex topic with 8 or 10 important messages when I can only afford to do one low-literacy publication?

A strong grouping of main and subpoints is a common solution to this problem. When individual sections are sequenced effectively and each can stand alone, readers can approach the text at their own pace.

I cannot afford to do separate low-literacy publications for all of our organization's publications. Is there an effective way to adapt higher level reading materials for low-literacy populations?

For many years, the only products available to professionals who work with low-literate groups were written at a high reading level. These professionals became adept at picking out the key concepts and highlighting them for their clients-- using underlining, circles, stars, or arrows that meant "pay special attention to this."

Although the experts would not call this approach ideal, it does meet the readers' needs better than untailored higher level material.

Writers also attempt to meet the needs of both audiences by using headlines and subheads to carry key message points, in logical order. Low-literate readers-- and others who only skim written materials-- can skip the details that the accompanying text provides.

All of my products need to be photocopied and that means I cannot use color. Sometimes my budget will not allow for illustrations either. Can I still design an effective low-literacy product?

Although color is a powerful communication tool, strong format, good use of white space, and alternative highlighting devices can help a black-and-white product convey its message.

Low-literacy products do not always need illustrations to "break up the text." Boxes, lines, and white space can keep a design from being too copy-dense.

Pictures that illustrate an action or a key point are valuable, however, and they do not have to be expensive to produce. In fact, simple line drawings usually are preferable to detailed pictures for this audience. Even "off-the-shelf" computer clip art can be effective if it fits the message and tests well with the audience.