The Online Resource for Massachusetts Poverty Law Advocates

Making Legal Information Readable is more than Plain Language

Date: 
03/02/2012
Author: 
Caroline Robinson, MLRI

The average American reads proficiently at the 5th-6th grade level. The average American constitutes a much larger group of readers than you might think.

Many of the people with whom you want to communicate effectively read at lower levels. 

To get an overview of Plain Language and Readability take Transcend and LawNY's Plain Language Course Online. Legal services programs and courts across the country rely on Transcend for expertise and training in Readability.

Before you begin writing, read Transcend's 6 tips for Creating a Readable Info Sheet. (Please note, on MassLegalHelp we try to avoid  "unless,"  "without" and parentheses.)

As you work on communicating effectively, use the excellent tools available online to:

  1. evaluate the grade level, and
  2. improve the "readability" of your work.

Evaluating reading grade level

To get a sense of the reading grade level of text, paste it into StoryToolz.com/readability. This online evaluation tool averages the results of 7 different grade level measuring formulae. It also gives you critical relevant information like how many words are in the longest sentence and how many extra words are in the text you are evaluating.

New Pearsons Reading Maturity Metric (RMM) The tool measures how the meanings of words and passages change as learners develop in literacy skills; even though the spelled "word forms" don't change. After all, the first step to learning a new word is knowing lots of old ones.  Pearson is an internationally recognized producer of technological educational assessment tools. RMM is in "beta". They are testing thetool. 

Improving readability

After you get a sense of the grade level you have reached, paste the text into the Write Clearly Gadget. This tool evaluates each sentence and then reports back to you. It ranks the sentences in their order of difficulty. Each sentence gets a score and a face that ranges from red and furiously scowling to green and smiling. This way you can find out what is skewing the grade level of the work. If it is some impossibly long government name, then you don't have to work on the sentence so hard - if it is a sentence that is more than 20 words long, with no words fewer than 3 syllables, some of which are not in the 3,000 most familiar words list, you will know you have to work on that sentence. On MassLegalHelp our goal is to have all our sentences get a smiley green face.

When I get stuck trying to find another word, I double check a series of word lists, to figure out how difficult the word actually is.  I use the following lists. 

  1. The Dale-Chall Word List is a list of words commonly known by 4th graders.
  2. Get an idea of the grade level of the word you want to use by looking at one of these 3 lists:
    1. MassLegalHelp Grade Level Vocabulary List
      I compiled this list by going through Scott Foresman spelling lists. I wanted a way to evaluate words and their grade level and difficulty. It is an instrument you can use to look for words or to indicate a word's difficulty.
    2. Wordly Wise - Oral Vocabulary List - Alphabetical
      Educators Publishing Service, publishers of Wordly Wise (the resource for grade level vocabularies and vocabulary building and beyond in this country), has now published the Wordly Wise wordlists on line, both alphabetically and by level.
    3. Wordly Wise - Oral Vocabulary List - By Grade Level 
      Educators Publishing Service, publishers of Wordly Wise (the resource for grade level vocabularies and vocabulary building and beyond resource in this country), has now published the Wordly Wise wordlists online.
  3. A-Z of Alternate Words by the Plain English Campaign
    This guide gives hundreds of plain English alternatives to the pompous words and phrases that litter official writing. On its own, the guide won't teach you how to write in plain English. There's more to it than just replacing 'hard' words with 'easy' words, and many of these alternatives won't work in every situation. But it will help if you want to get rid of words like 'notwithstanding', 'expeditiously' and phrases like 'in the majority of instances' and ' at this moment in time'. And using everyday words is an important first step towards clearer writing.
  4. Plain English Network Word Suggestions
    Simple words help you express your message clearly. Too many complex words are like hurdles in a race, slowing readers down. Replacing complex words with simpler words lets your readers concentrate on your content. Using simple and familiar words where possible doesn't insult your readers' intelligence but emphasizes clarity rather than formality. Save longer or complex words for when they are essential. Foreign words, jargon, and abbreviations may detract from the clarity of your writing. Readers often skip over terms they don't understand, hoping to get their meaning from the rest of the sentence. Readers complain about jargon more than any other writing fault. Every profession, trade, and organization has its own specialized terms. While we all complain about jargon, everyone writes it. We hate everyone else's jargon, but we love our own.  Plain language does not ban jargon and other specialist terms. But you need to understand your readers and match your language to their needs.
  5. Plain Language Dictionary from Duncan & Kent Associates
    A plain language styleguide and dictionary.
  6. How to Write Good Legal Stuff Eugene Volokh and J. Alexander Tanford
    An amusing quick guide to help you review your writing for good and bad writing

More Resources

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) Plain Language.gov is a group of federal employees from many different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing. We develop and maintain the content of this site.

Plain Language FAQs from Transcend In the legal field, plain language can be the first step to access to justice. From effectively filling out legal forms to helping pro per clients do their best, plain language forms and pamphlets allow people access to the information they need in a way they can understand and use.

Self-HelpSupport.org Resources on Readability. You need to join this site and get your membership approved to see these resources.

Plain Writing Act of 2010 The term`plain writing’ means writing that the intended audience can readily understand and use because that writing is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing.

See the Justice Department's Plain Language Plan.

Books

Plain English for Lawyers, Richard Wydick (5th Edition, 2005)

The Redbook A Manual on Legal style, Bryan A Garner (2nd Edition, 2006)

Updated: 15 August, 2014

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