A rule of thumb in developing content is to keep the reading level as low as possible for accessibility to the widest possible range of readers. This is challenging for writers; reading levels are typically calculated using algorithms like the Fry Method that account for word length and sentence complexity. Multi-syllable words and multi-part sentences lead to higher reading levels. As a writer, I lament the loss of elegant sentence structure and deliberate diction resulting from attempts to make content accessible to all readers. As a psychologist, I wonder if it’s always necessary given the shortcuts people use for information processing.
There are ways besides choosing easier words and shorter sentences that can help enhance readers’ comprehension of materials. For example, strategically selected images can help illustrate the concepts discussed (and is it any accident that children’s books are image-heavy)? The inclusion of images can also help to encourage readers to form their own mental pictures of what they’re reading, a strategy shown to improve comprehension.
The way text is formatted can also impact how easily it’s understood by readers. There are many best practices around how to format a page on the web, including keeping content concise and using headlines and sub-heads judiciously (this is probably my favorite article on formatting web content). There are also tools writers can use to make their content reader-friendly. For example, one company called Asymmetrica Labs has created a tool that inserts spaces into web text to maximize reader comprehension.
Another way that people can grasp material that is technically above their reading level is if they believe it’s relevant to them. When I worked for HealthMedia, our founder used to say that long-haul trucking magazines are measured at an advanced reading level even though most truckers don’t have a commensurate level of formal education. It’s not an issue because the content in the magazines is relevant and interesting to the people reading it. (For what it’s worth, I have never been able to find this particular research study, but the point stuck with me.)
There seems to be some evidence that personal relevance improves comprehension. One research study that had adult learners participate in the decision of what to read and focus on materials with real-world relevance found that this way of teaching reading led to more reading at home, outside of class. It seems that linking the activity of learning to read to subjects that are either interesting to the learner or matter for the learner’s everyday life helps to make reading more interesting.
So what if you create content related to health, with the goal of helping people to improve their well-being? This circles back to the idea that people really need to choose their own health goals, ones that matter personally to them. It’s through this goal-setting process that we can start to create relevance in health communications.
Absolutely, adopt the best practices of making content easy to read and scan so that it’s accessible to the widest possible range of readers. But I don’t think text needs to be simplified to the point of losing meaning, even for people with lower levels of literacy. Wise use of images, clever formatting, and most importantly, a focus on why the material is relevant and interesting to readers can help people get the most out of your content.