How Easy Read changes sentences: research results

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My research investigated how Easy Read and Plain English advice was put into practice by Easy Read writers, to adapt text for accessibility.

First a quick reminder about what the research was about, and then I’ll look at sentence length, and whether shortening sentences helps understanding.

The research

48 Easy Read documents were analysed, half of which were ‘Easy Read’ versions of unadapted documents. A range of linguistic and text variables were measured using software developed from word data bases and reading theories. This was followed by discourse (qualitative) analysis, applying research on reading, language and communication disabilities. Some illustrations were analysed but other features, eg font and layout, were not.

The documents were produced by Government departments, NHS, NGOs, local councils, learning disability charities and political parties. The Easy Read versions were all written for or with people with learning disabilities (the Easy Read target audience).

Easy Read advice

Easy Read guidelines typically advise writers to use:

Short sentences

Easy words

Simple language

15-20 words familiar, ‘easy’ words simple,   clear language
one idea per sentence avoid difficult/   complicated words, and ‘jargon’ natural   language 
full stops and bullet   points to ‘break up’ information and ‘present it clearly’  explain difficult   words, straight after they are used, or in a glossary  ‘easy to understand’ sentences
  use direct, personal   language, such as ‘you’  ‘smaller chunks’
  repeat of words and   information active voice
    simplify, explain or   avoid complex ideas
    omit ‘unnecessary   detail’

This advice is the same as Plain English guidelines, so the research is also relevant to documents adapted using Plain English.

Here I’ll look at sentence length. More about easier words and simpler language later.

Short sentences

Sentence length was calculated using the average number of words in each sentence. I found Easy Read methods led to significant reductions in sentence length.

Sentence length 1

The average Easy Read sentence had 11 words, which is lower than the recommended 15-20 words.  Average sentence lengths were affected by my preparation of the texts, and the software interpretation of bulleted lists as a series of short sentences. 21 of the 24 paired Easy Read documents used bullet points.

The 18 Easy Read documents with the shortest sentence length scores had high variation in the number of words per sentence. Varying the length of sentences may be an incidental technique, as it is not specifically advised in any of the Easy Read guidelines consulted (although it is advised in Plain English).

Easy Read writers are shortening sentences by:

  • deletion of words and phrases
  • reordering phrases
  • splitting longer sentences into two or more sentences or phrases, using full stops
  • use of bullet points

Easy Read writers therefore appear to be successful in shortening sentences – if bulleted list are counted as a series of short sentences.

Overall there was little consistency in sentence length.

Bullet points

Bulleted lists are a very popular Easy Read technique. The interpretation of bulleted lists as either a series of short sentences, or one long sentence, makes a difference to the sentence length.

I’ll be looking at bullet points, and what effect they may have on understanding,  in my next blog.

Why 15-20 words?

A recommended sentence length of 15-20 words is core advice in Easy Read and Plain English guidelines, but I found no supporting evidence as to why, or how, techniques help understanding.

I have traced the origin of this advice, and many other Easy Read and Plain English writing techniques. The idea that sentences should be 15-20 words started off in mid 20th century America. A particularly influential advocate of short sentences was Rupert Flesch, an Austrian lawyer with a PhD in Philosophy.

Flesch devised his ideal sentence length by counting words in literature, and other texts which he considered good writing.  In 1949 he recommended 18 words per sentence. He came to this conclusion after counting words in five ‘mass circulation’ magazines, one of which was the Reader’s Digest.

Over the years Flesch changed his mind on how many words there should be in a sentence. By 1974 three of the magazines, upheld by Flesch as exemplary, had closed, and after a ‘random’ re-count he recommended using 15-17 words.

As far as I know, Flesch had no formal linguistic training, and no knowledge of communication or learning disabilities. If you are a lawyer, you will think a 15 word sentence is short.

How short can a sentence be?

From a linguistic point of view, here’s a short sentence:

Birds fly.

And here is another one:

John ate cake.

And a longer one:

John gave Marie some coffee.

We have 3 sentences, with 2, 3 and 5 words. Each one is a complete English sentence using basic sentence structures. Anything longer adds complexity to this basic structure.

Compare the 15 word sentence rule to another piece of Easy Read and Plain English advice – one idea per sentence. If you can express an idea in a 2- 5 word sentence, how can a single idea be expressed in 15 words, without adding complexity?

If you start with a basic 5 word sentence and end up with 20 words, that’s 15 words, or 75%, complexity.

The average sentence length of the unadapted texts in my research was 18 words, which is within Easy Read and Plain English guidelines. The average length of sentences in this blog is 16 words. If 15-20 word sentences are easy to understand, most texts don’t need adapting.

We need longer sentences to express meaning, because we don’t talk or think in single, isolated ideas. Sentence length is a correlation of complexity, not a cause. The complexity of a text is determined by many factors, including the length of the text and the complexity of the ideas expressed. To be accessible, these factors must also be adapted.

Conclusion

There are mixed results when assessing whether Easy Read reduces sentence length. There is little consistency, and Easy Read guidelines do not provide guidance about why, when or how to shorten sentences.

Look out for my blog on bullet points, and next week I’ll look at whether Easy Read and Plain English writing techniques are successful in using easier words and simpler sentences, and how that affects accessibility.

If you’d like to know more about adapting your information, or you’d like to review your current provision for accessibility, please get in touch.

 

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