How to Write in Plain Language for Teaching

plain language
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Inclusive websites are written in plain language. By using everyday language, potential users can more easily: 

  • Find what they’re looking for 
  • Understand it 
  • Get a better translation from online tools 

During the recent Beyond Access Forum, a workshop dedicated to supporting educators gave participants a number of ways to ensure that what they write meets these goals.

“If you make accessible content, it doesn’t just benefit the population you’re trying to help, it really benefits everybody,” said presenter Laura Ogando, program manager for the Office of Digital Literacy & Inclusion, NYC Department of Education. “Communication needs to be instantaneous. People need information at their fingertips.”

Watch the presentation free on demand here 

Plain Language: Writing for Effective Translation 

In New York City, half of students speak a language other than English at home, and there are many school-related communities that need access to information. “So anytime we’re dealing with a population who needs information in another language, it can be tricky,” said Ogando. “Often translation is not a word-for-word thing.”

According to Ogando, writing for effective translation ensures:

  • An inclusive experience for students and families 
  • Speakers of all languages can access content 
  • Content is more accessible to English readers 

When you create more translatable text, it’s easier for everyone to read, she said. 

Also, when writing for effective translation, Ogando suggests that it’s a good practice to lower the reading level (target grade 6-9), be mindful of sentence subject language, and include relative pronouns. “We may not realize it, but teachers tend to write at a collegiate level,” said Ogando. “And that’s difficult for many of our families to read.”

That doesn’t mean you have to “dumb it down,” said Orgando. When writing, she suggests using simple, everyday words, short sentences, active voice, and written out dates. “This is about being precise and clear with your language.”

Sentence subject order matters, however. It’s also important to not use different words for the same subject, which can change the translation. In addition, including relative pronouns, such as who, whose, whom, which, and that, help better connect nouns to descriptions. “We tend to leave these out,” said Ogando. “But for non-native speakers of English, this can really change the meaning.”

Writing in Plain Language 

Plain language is writing designed to be easily understood by all readers the first time it is read. 

“If you think about it, a lot of the communication that we send out to our families flies in the face of this,” said Ogando. “It’s not easily understood. It’s a lot of edu-jargon.”

Writing in plain language makes information more easily:

  • Found through online searches 
  • Understood by all readers, including those with disabilities
  • Translated using online tools  

“Who wants to read 17 times something the DOE sends just to understand it?” asked Ogando. “It’d be nice to just understand it the first time."

When thinking about vocabulary, consider the three tiers:

  • Tier 1: Frequently used words, such as clock, baby, happy, walk 
  • Tier 2: General academic words, such as obvious, complex, establish 
  • Tier 3: Domain specific words, such as scaffold, inquiry, pedagogy 

Avoid Tier 3 words, said Ogando, which is hard for teachers who are used to using a lot of domain specific language. “We sometimes realize that when we use these words, our families have no idea what we’re talking about,” she said. For example, every teacher knows what scaffolded instruction is, but if you ask any parent what it is, chances are most don’t know what it is. “We’re taking a word from the construction world and marrying it to an education concept, and then add on top of that the idea of translating it into another language, such as Korean, it loses all meaning,” she said.

Tier 1 and 2 words will provide the “most bang for the buck” in terms of communication.

Also be wary of acronyms, said Ogando, such as SEL (social-emotional learning). Spell it out the first time, and then you can use it in the rest of your communication. “You have no idea how many people have no clue what our alphabet soup means,” said Ogando. “We have to be mindful of all these little things we do that can confuse the heck out of our families.”

Avoid passive voice, as it can be unclear and typically leaves out the subject. Active voice makes it clear that the subject of a sentence is taking the action. “Active voice leads to better understanding,” said Ogando. 

When it comes to determining reading level, Flesh-Kincaid is one of the most widely used measures. A raw score of 70-60 indicates an 8th-9th grade reading level, and the lower the raw score, the more difficult it is to read. The closer you are to 100, the more simplistic the text.

Microsoft and Google both provide readability tools for testing text. “Remember to not only check your writing but to fix it as needed,” said Ogando. 

“Writing in plain language and writing to make sure your content is acceptable, is really tricky,” said Ogando. “Be clear and precise with what you mean. We tend to use 20 words when we really only need 10.”

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.