How to lower the reading age of your content to the national average.

What it is

Readability is how easy it is for users to read your content.

Why it’s important

A lot of what the Scottish and UK governments publish, either online or in print, is too complex for at least half of our readers. This is mirrored across agencies, services and the general public sector.

We know this by applying reading tests to what’s published, and comparing it to data from studies such as the Scottish Government Survey of Adult Literacy.

We also know this complexity confuses the public, and is a barrier to using public services or claiming benefits.

Rather than just meeting a reading age or government standards, there are demonstrable user needs for making government text simpler.

In user testing sessions people consistently struggled to read and understand phrases like these:

  • ‘income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance’
  • ‘contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance’
  • ‘child element of Universal Credit’

In something like social security, such phrases can often be important for a user to understand what they’re being paid, and their eligibility for other payments or support. So it’s easy to understand how things can quickly get too complicated for many people.

A ‘whole government’ approach to language

Close working across government is needed to further improve our content. We need to make sure that any language produced for the general public has been written in an accessible way.

We can use the way we analyse text to improve things the next time we’re doing anything involving written content, whether that’s naming a benefit or publishing anything in government that the Scottish public will see. As a starting point, we can use basic techniques.

If you’re planning a project that involves communicating with the public, it’s also a good idea to plan specialist content resource to support how these things are done. You should plan this resource not just as a delivery resource, but as a support resource from the very start of the project.

This resource can then work with and advise other specialists, such as those working in policy or governance, on making what we publish for the public accessible before final decisions are made.

How you do it

The most basic writing techniques when writing for the general public are:

  • use short sentences
  • try not to use words that are 3 syllables or more

This can be difficult to apply to a lot of government text, but not impossible.

Good examples

Here’s an example situation that shows how improving readability can make content easier to understand for a wider range of users.

Sample A, original text: Universal Credit information for the public

‘Universal Credit is a payment reserved to the UK Government that combines six in- and out-of-work benefits into a single monthly payment. It replaces:

  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Housing Benefit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Income Support

The UK Government will continue to roll out Universal Credit for new claims until September 2018. Following that people in receipt of the legacy benefits above, e.g. JSA, will be transferred over to Universal Credit over a period of time. The roll out will not be finished until 2022.’

About the reading age of this sample

This sample has a high reading age. In terms of qualifications, it would sit at the level of a top-grade Advanced Higher. Based on adult literacy data, it’s ‘expected that around half of the Scottish public would struggle to fully understand the text’.

Sample B, suggested text for improved readability

‘Universal Credit is a UK-wide payment that’s taking the place of older payments, such as:

  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Housing Benefit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Income Support

The roll-out of Universal Credit for new claims will carry on until autumn 2018. If you still get one of the older payments after autumn 2018, you’ll be switched to Universal Credit. This may take some time and you might not be switched over until 2022.’

About the reading age of this sample

This version isn’t perfect, but it fares better in reading age tests. In terms of qualifications, it can be graded at about National 5 level or a low-grade Higher. It would be expected that 75-80% of the Scottish public would be able to fully understand and use this text.

How we can improve further

The difference between the 2 samples is that sample B removes any ‘unnecessary’ words of more than 2 syllables.

It’s relatively simple to work out what’s necessary and what isn’t. ‘Legacy benefits’ isn’t really needed, so the text can be rewritten to remove the phrase and say something like ‘older payments’. Unfortunately, ‘income-related Jobseekers Allowance’ is needed because it’s the name the UK government has given this particular benefit.

To improve the text further the government would need to rename the benefit to something that, in terms of readability, meets content standards.

Tools to help you work out the reading age of a text

Not all reading tools are equal. In the Scottish Government, we use the Learning and Work Institute’s SMOG tool, though it has some disadvantages. It requires a reasonable amount of interpretation and application of knowledge. For instance, the ‘score’ given as the tool’s result for a text doesn’t correspond to a reading age. You have to take the score and apply it to an adult literacy framework.

From a practical point of view, you also need to make sure you add a full stop to every item on a bullet point list, as the tool will read everything between 2 full stops as 1 sentence and you’ll end up with an inflated score. It’s still useful if used in the right way.

We’re not as keen on Hemingway, although it can be used for a basic check. It looks pretty and is very user friendly, but the formula the tool is built on isn’t as reliable as that of the Learning and Work Institute’s SMOG tool.

The reasons for this refer to literacy research and academic reasoning, but the basic summary is that Hemingway predominantly uses the number of characters in a text’s words to calculate reading age, rather than the number of syllables. In various testing sessions, the character-based formula has underestimated the difficulty of a text according to the actual literacy ability of general users.

Remember, all literacy tools are only indicators. They require interpretation and context. However, they are the only real indicators when it comes to judging the readability or complexity of a text against actual adult literacy, so their use is recommended.

Help you can get

If you’re looking for advice on planning content you can email:

Plain English and readability tools

Digital First Service Standard

This article offers guidance relevant to the following criterion from the Digital First service standard: