Plain language vs. Easy English

Plain language vs. Easy English

Plain language’s aim is to ensure that people can access (understand and use) the information they need to lead better lives. But there’s also Easy English. The two share core principles but Easy English specifically helps people with low literacy skills.

Plain language principles help everyone access (understand and use) the information they need to lead better lives. So how is it different from Easy English, which also aims to help more people access the written word? (Written in a post that is too wordy… ^^;)

[In this article…]

What does plain language have to do with accessibility?

What do you think of when you hear the word “accessibility”?

I immediately think about making physical accommodations for persons with disabilities. So for a webpage, it could be things like

  • the text is a readable size
  • the page has enough contrast
  • images have ALT text
  • videos have captions or a transcript

But the 2021 Access for All: Plain Language Is a Civil Right conference drove home to me: the way we write is also key to access.

When we write clearly, more people can access the content.

Plain language tips help a more diverse group of people read and understand your content and make use of it.

Shorter and active sentences and direct words help persons who use screen readers or have cognitive impairments or limited skills in that language.

It also helps sleep-deprived work-from-home moms nursing a feverish baby while trying to google one-handedly if it’s safe to give baby paracetamol.

It helps anyone who doesn’t have the time, energy or concentration to read through a wall of text to find answers to their problems.

Plain language helps everyone.

What’s Easy English?

More recently at the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading 2021 conference, Cathy Basterfield of Access Easy English (Twitter: @accesseasyengli) talked about Easy English and what editors can learn from people with low literacy.

She shared data that shocked me: Among OECD countries, only half of the population are functionally literate.

That means half the population don’t have the reading skills to manage daily living and work.

Figure from OECD study showing OECD countries' literacy proficiency among adults. The OECD average shows that over 50% of adults are functionally illiterate (i.e., on a 6-level literacy proficiency scale, they are the bottom 3 levels).
Snapshot of Figure 2.6 from OECD, Skills Matter: Additional Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2019), 44.
Each vertical blue-to-grey bar represents one OECD country and shows the spread of adults across literacy levels. The vertical bar in the middle, highlighted in light blue, shows the average across all OECD countries. The people above the center horizontal line (at “0” of the y-axis) are functionally illiterate (i.e., out of the 6 levels on the literacy proficiency scale, they are in the bottom 3 levels). I know you want to see how your country did: please see the report for the original and complete figure.

So the words on blogs like this one, news sites, websites, etc., don’t reach 50% of the population by default.

And from there, we lose more and more of the audience if our writing is hard to read.

An example: I’m functionally illiterate in Thai

I’m functionally illiterate in Thai. I can read some words veeeeeerrryyyy slowly and only with much effort and concentration.

Reading a menu or a coupon is about the limit of what I can handle. Maybe I can decipher a simple train timetable but only if Arabic numbers are used; not Thai. Looking things up online in Thai is out of the question.

I need to brace myself to tackle a few words; usually, I’m not in the mood. Reading Thai is not fun.

If you’re in an English-speaking country and struggle with English reading, Easy English can help.

Easy English (which I believe is specific to Australia; it may be called Easy Read, Easy Write, etc. in other places and there may be other differences) is

a way to present information for people who are not familiar with English, or who have low literacy or learning disability.

Australian Government Style Manual, “Easy Read

Plain language vs. Easy English: How are they similar/different?

Plain language and Easy English sound similar. However, they are not the same.

Plain language is about writing to match your intended audience.

Plain language is about choosing words and organizing them (including use of design elements) so it’s easy for the reader to find, understand, and use whatever information is presented.

If you’re targeting a general audience, the US government suggests aiming at an 8th-grade reading level.

▶ Easy English targets a very specific audience.

While Easy English also focuses on readability and using simple words, it specifically targets people with

  • low literacy
  • intellectual disabilities

It can also help foreigners with basic English skills.

Some notable features of Easy English include

  • a limit of 15 words per sentence
  • use of bullet points
  • use of pictures to illustrate meaning
  • minimum font size of 14 pt

You can see an example at Access Easy English [link opens PDF]: the same text is shown in complex English, plain English, and Easy English. Easy English has a distinct look!

A handy guide to compare the two: Easy English versus Plain English Guide [link opens PDF], by the Centre for Inclusive Design, Australia

Back to my example: I’m functionally illiterate in Thai

So back to my example. For me-the-Thai-illiterate, Plain Thai (if there were such a thing) would still be too difficult. But I might be able to read some Easy Thai (if there were such a thing), which would let me access some information that I otherwise couldn’t. What a relief that would be!

I can see that I would need specific training to write in Easy English and will continue focusing on plain language.

But if you’ve ever been in a country where you don’t speak the language, you must remember feeling rather helpless.

And remembering that feeling will surely help us all write in clearer, more accessible language.


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Cover image by MasterTux from Pixabay

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