“The average reading age in the UK is nine years old and so we should write in a way that is easy to understand for all users.”

Source: Office for National Statistics

When I first saw this I was shocked – it just didn’t seem right – and I’m sure it’s not. I contacted the ONS and they couldn’t give me a source except that it came from the Department of Education.

The National Literacy Trust (NLT) says: a government survey of adult literacy skills found that 14.9% of adults in England have literacy levels at or below Entry Level 3, which is equivalent to the literacy skills expected of a nine to 11-year-old.

Adults with skills below Entry Level 3 may not be able to understand labels on pre-packaged food or understand household bills.

I don’t know how you get from 14.9% (NLT) to an average reading age of nine (ONS) – I’m not a statistician!

I find these figures shocking, and it’s quite hard to work out what the real figure is.

The National Literacy Trust has, however, a statement which says; ‘1 in 6 (16.4% / 7.1 million people) adults in England have very poor literacy skills.’ https://literacytrust.org.uk/parents-and-families/adult-literacy/

The implications this has for online learning seem to me to be substantial.

A great deal of online learning is text based. It might look something like this.

typical elearning screen

Now, let’s say there’s an organisation that employs 20,000 people and they all have to undergo, for example, online health and safety training. That would mean that, according to the National Literacy Trust’s figure of 16.4% having very poor literacy skills, that 3,280 people could find this form of learning material difficult to understand.

So what can be done?

Microsoft Word has a feature which allows you to check the readability of a document. I tested this with this document up until the end of the previous paragraph. Annoyingly you have to make all the ‘corrections’ that Microsoft suggests before it will give you a score. This included removing all contractions, and I would have had to have change the quote from the National Literacy Trust to read ‘extremely poor’ instead of ‘very poor’, as apparently this would make it clearer – but inaccurate as a quote! Here is the result (before I changed everything back).

readability scores

Flesch Reading Ease test
For most standard files, you want the score to be between 60 and 70.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test
For most documents, aim for a score of approximately 7.0 to 8.0.

Because I had to make all the changes to get the score, and in my view change the style of writing to a less conversational one e.g. by not using contractions, I didn’t find this particularly helpful.

I think a large part of the job of an elearning designer/writer, sometimes called and instructional designer, is to make the subject matter as easy for the end user to understand as possible. And that’s why I think explainer videos can be very helpful. You can see an example of our Health and Safety at Work video here: https://youtu.be/dPupXa-PXHA

One of the reasons I like using animated videos such as this, and the ones on our showreel page, is that you have all sorts of ‘tools’ at your disposal.

We use specially created images, text on screen, spoken text and animations to explain things as clearly as possible, almost a multi-pronged approach.

So, the voice over explains what’s happening, the image shows what’s happening and perhaps some text on screen will reinforce the main points.

If there’s a written quote, it’s also read out.

I haven’t seen any research to back this up, but I feel that this sort of approach would be more accessible to someone who finds reading difficult.

We often talk about accessibility in elearning and how important it is to make the content accessible to people who are hearing or visually impaired. For example, all our videos come with closed captions, but I’ve never heard much about making elearning more accessible to people who have ‘very poor literacy skills’. In other words, 16.4% or the population.

Perhaps this is a conversation we need to start.