Monday, March 13, 2006

Guidelines for Low Literacy Readers

Writing and Re-writing Materials for Low-Literacy Audiences

Literacy is the ability to read and write. Illiteracy is the inability to read and write. The inability to perform tasks like reading street signs, instructions, or the written part of a driver's license test is called functional illiteracy. And even if someone can read, sometimes he or she may not read easily, so when we are writing for this audience we must take extra care to make sure we are as clear as possible.

These guidelines will help you write or rewrite materials for adults who don't read well. These guidelines can also be useful when you are writing for elderly people. The points followed by an asterisk are qualities any reader would appreciate, regardless of his or her reading level.


  1. Write simply, using familiar, commonly used words.
  2. Write personally, using "you" rather than "they" or "one."
  3. Use words of one or two syllables whenever possible.
  4. Use active verbs.
  5. Don't allow words to break (hyphenate) at the end of a line.
  6. Use words that are common to the reader's vocabulary (regional, cultural, etc).


  1. Use simple sentence structure when possible.
  2. Avoid introductory and imbedded phrases and clauses. However, prepositional phrases and clauses that use a very common connecting word (like "because" or "if") can usually be easily understood.
  3. Vary sentence length, but avoid sentences over 15 words long.


  1. Vary paragraph length, but avoid paragraphs over 5 sentences long.
  2. Use short headings to introduce paragraphs.


  1. Write in the active rather than the passive voice.
  2. Use graphics that are logically linked to the text.
  3. Use upper- and lower-case letters rather than all capitals.
  4. Use white or off-white paper and dark (blue, black) ink.
  5. Balance the use of text with white space.
  6. Use an unjustified right margin.
  7. Use numerals whenever possible. Numerals are readily recognized however they are used, and numbering the steps in instructions can help guide the reader through the information.


  1. Avoid excessive information.
  2. Use concrete rather than abstract words, or give concrete examples of abstract ideas.
  3. Apply the content being presented to the reader's personal and cultural experiences.


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