In my research on accessible information, I found Easy Read and Plain English guidelines are vague in advising how to simplify language. Guidelines suggest using ‘simple’ and ‘clear’ language, without specifying what that means.
Writers are expected to make decisions about what is ‘unnecessary detail’ and be able to identify a passive sentence. None of the guidelines I consulted explained how to simplify complex ideas, or what to do when ‘avoiding’ complex ideas changed the meaning of the text.
Here I explain what I found when I analysed Easy Read texts, adapted from original versions, and what the changes might mean for readers with low literacy and language skills. The Easy Read writing techniques mentioned are also found in Plain English guidelines.
Syntactic simplicity (grammar)
Adaptation significantly increased the syntactic simplicity of documents, according to the average score.
There was no pattern to the amount of change a text underwent through the adaptation process.
The scores also showed something quite startling:
Adaptation can make language more complex
Four of the 24 documents gained syntactic complexity through the adaptation process. These were council, charity and NHS publications.
(In the graph above, the lower the score on the left axis, the more complicated the grammar.)
Half of the Easy Read texts had more complex syntax than unadapted texts
23 of the 48 Easy Read documents scored more highly for syntactic complexity than one or more of the unadapted texts.
Easy Read guidelines recommend avoiding the passive voice where possible. Overall, adaptation led to a significant reduction in the use of passives. However, 41 of the 48 Easy Read documents still contained passives, with wide variation.
Easy Read guidelines recommend avoiding negative sentences where possible. Adaptation led to a slight increase in the use of negatives, with wide variation. 44 of the 48 Easy Read documents contained negatives.
Referential cohesion is how much words and ideas overlap throughout a text, which helps recall and understanding at surface level. Easy Read guidelines do not specifically mention referential cohesion, but do advise using the same word for the same thing, and repetition of terms. Adaptation led to significant increases in referential cohesion in the Easy Read documents, but there was high variation.
Deep cohesion is a measure of how much the text explains relationship between ideas, to help the reader gain a deeper understanding. Reading needs to be at this deeper level to fully understand information.
Easy Read tends to focus on words and sentences, rather than linking ideas to support understanding of whole texts. Easy Read techniques advise omitting ‘unnecessary words’, but there are currently no guidelines on how to identify whether a word is necessary or not, and deletions can lead to a reduction in deep cohesion (eg by using bullet points).
Adaptation had no significant affect on the average score for the Easy Read versions of the unadapted texts, but overall Easy Read documents scored lower for deep cohesion than unadapted texts, with high variation. Deep cohesion is eroded by the omission of connectives, and a focus on words and short sentences, rather than on overall meaning.
Connectives are words that join ideas, and help explain the relationships between ideas. Adaptation led to a significant decrease in the use of connectives in Easy Read texts. Omitting the connectives means readers have to guess the connections between ideas, which isn’t so easy for low knowledge and low skilled readers.
Evidence of wide variation between Easy Read documents was found in most linguistic and text measures. The results suggest the term ‘Easy Read’ does not indicate a consistent, recognisable standard or product. The increase in complexity, and overlap in complexity with unadapted documents, is concerning.
The wide variation suggests there is currently no systematic approach to adapting language or text cohesion. Syntactic complexity, such as the continuing prevalence of the passive voice, suggests writers lack knowledge in identifying and modifying textual features that contribute to complexity.
The increase in syntactic complexity, and reduction in connectives and deep cohesion, have significant implications for the accessibility of information for people who need adaptation to read independently, and for improved meaning.
In my study, discourse analysis showed in more detail how these adaptations are affecting texts. I found textual changes can increase difficulty, even when the translation to Easy Read was co-created by and for people with learning difficulties.
What’s the solution?
Look out for future blogs, when I’ll be discussing why information co-created with people with learning difficulties is sometimes more difficult to understand than the unadapted information.
I’ll also be explaining why I think Plain English and Easy Read represent an outdated model of communication, and why we can never promise information is ‘plain’, ‘clear’ or ‘easy’. I’ll also be exploring the ethics of Easy Read, and explaining why a dual approach to accessibility (unadapted and adapted information) can create a barrier to informed choice.
If you have any questions about my research, or you’d like to know more about adapting language, please get in touch.