Plain Language as an Equity Issue

Posted on Mar 8, 2017 in Guest blog

Why do I provide plain language work? As an educator, I value plain language as an equity issue for adults with low reading skills. Here is a snapshot of the problem in the United States:

36 Million 

Adults who cannot read above a 3rd grade level.

Of U. S. adults lack a high school diploma.
Of immigrants have low English skills or lack a high school diploma.
Of adults in some urban areas lack high school diplomas.

In my plain language work, I assist organizations serving urban families in high poverty areas. These organizations truly want parents with low reading skills to understand their written communications, such as

  • Pre-kindergarten enrollment materials
  • Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum overview
  • Parent survey
  • Tips for quitting smoking
  • Consent form for a program to use children’s data in an evaluation (my most recent project).

“Literacy rich”?

In the curriculum overview, I changed “providing a literacy rich environment” to “have books for your children and make sure they have a chance to hear someone read to them.”

I appreciate how these organizations care about communicating clearly with the people they serve. With the revised consent form, I truly believe that parents will be giving informed consent regarding their children’s data.

However, too many public materials create unnecessary barriers. One simple example: An overview of a state’s health care insurance plans claimed that with their program, people could compare “apples to apples.” This idiom boggles adult English language learners.

These adults already face too many barriers. Without a high school diploma, getting a job or obtaining job training is almost impossible. Plus, with current funding, adult education programs can only serve about 10% of adults who need basic academic instruction or to learn English (Check Meanwhile, having important, everyday documents in plain language can empower lower literacy adults and English language learners to function more independently and participate more fully in our democracy.


Cynthia PhotoAbout the author: Cynthia Macleay Campbell, EdD, Principal Consultant of Gold Apple Services LLC, enjoys combining her educational and editorial expertise to equip her clients to reach new levels of excellence.