Simple Communication, Part One: Understanding How We Read 

Public Square wants to make local democracy easier to understand. As a result, we are learning about how we can use simple language to make communication clearer.

In our first blog post on simple language, we look at how people read – and how it can help you to use simple language.


Learning to read and understanding

The team that writes the Government’s web pages on everything from how to get a passport to what happens in the event of a no-deal Brexit, shares some valuable insights into how people learn to read in the how people read guide.

Reading age

The guide says that by the age of nine, we have learned a core vocabulary that almost everyone uses. While we carry on learning words after that, it’s these words that we are most comfortable with. So whenever possible it’s best to only uses these words. In fact, less familiar words tend to throw you readers off course, even if they recognise them.

Tip: Use common words that everyone recognises


The shape of words

Most of us learn to read by recognising the shape of words. In fact, neuroscience research suggests we use the same area of the brain to recognise words as we do faces. We become so good at processing words and meaning that we can miss chunks out of sentences but still understand what is written down. But longer words are harder to recognise so we often miss them out. If you place several long words together in the same sentence you’ll see how hard it is to recognise each word.

Tip: Prefer shorter words 


Helping less confident readers

The connection between the length of a sentence and the likelihood someone will read it was first made by researchers in 1928. Since then, we have learned that it is one of the most important predictors for how much people understand of what you write. Shorter and simpler sentences can also help people with learning disabilities, particularly those who read letter by letter, rather than by recognising whole words.

Tip: Keep your sentences as short as you can


Bouncing from one word to another

When we read, our eyes make short, rapid movements called ‘saccades’ and short stops on words, called ‘fixations’. These movements don’t always move from one word to the next in a sentence, but can miss words and jump backwards and forwards. We also like to scan through text, particularly online, looking for the things that interest us – rather than concentrating on reading a whole piece of text through.

Using short sentences and short words will help, but you can also use white space between paragraphs and sentences to help people scan for themselves. Adding headings can also help to signpost the bits that people really want to read.

Tip: Use plenty of space and headings to make it easier for people to read


It seems harder to do if it’s harder to read

Researchers at the University of Michigan gave people instructions for a task they had never done before. The same instructions were printed in two fonts, one that was easy to read and another that was more difficult to read. Participants were then asked to rate how difficult it was to read the instructions and how easy they thought the task was.  In a series of experiments, they found that people were more likely to judge the task harder, requiring more skill or more time, if the text was harder for them to read.

Tip: Improving readability with easy-to-read, clear fonts can also help to make tasks seem easier!


Guidance for using these tips:

  • Write a plan – if you mark down bullet points of everything you need to say it’s often easier to stick to the message than if you simply write down what’s in your mind in long hand to begin with.
  • Only say one thing per sentence. Imagine that each sentence can only make one point. Then move on to the next point in a new sentence.
  • Make a second and third draft. You will pick up where things get complicated for any reader and find a simpler, more elegant way of getting your point across.
  • Pick a good font by following a good font guide. Sites like share legibility guides for fonts

In our next post, we’ll look at how journalists using a set of techniques to hold people’s attention and communicate clearly.