Does your organization rely on readability formulas? A research review by Dr. Karen A. Schriver—“Plain Language in the United States Gains Momentum: 1940–2015”—takes a hard look at readability formulas. Schriver finds that readability formulas are often unreliable and invalid methods of evaluating text quality.
The review shows that achieving plain language is not a simple matter of counting the number of complex words and long sentences. Schriver examines why readability formulas and their results are so frequently misunderstood and misapplied. She argues that instead of using readability formulas, plain-language advocates should rely on usability testing as the best benchmark for judging their work.
Research over the last three decades tells us that reader-focused testing represents the gold standard for knowing what is plain. Testing tells us what will be clear, usable, useful, and accessible. Indeed, usability testing is especially important for assessing those high-volume public communications (such as tax documents) and low-volume, but critical, documents (such as instructions for emergency responders or legal contracts).
Schriver details why most readability formulas are both outdated and overrated. Even so, she sees automated intelligent assistance for authors as possibly quite useful.
With a focus on the U.S. scene over the past 75 years, Schriver traces how plain language evolved—eventually gaining momentum and acceptance by industry, government, and the American public. She also investigates the ways in which plain-language advocates changed their ideas about their activity over time. A few takeaways from the review are these:
- Plain language has evolved significantly over the past 75 years—from a focus on crafting clear sentences to creating effective multimedia, electronic, or paper communications.
- Plain-language practitioners have expanded their concerns from readability to usability to believability. Today, they not only want to know whether people understand the content—the usability and accessibility of the content—but also, whether people trust the content.
- Research tells us that most readability formulas are outdated methods for assessing text quality. Usability testing is the best benchmark for assessing plain language.
- The growing empirical evidence suggests that plain language works for everyone—young and old, experts and novices, first-language readers and second-language readers.
Review of plain language wins award
The journal IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication awarded the Rudolph J. Joenk Award for Best Paper of 2017 to Karen Schriver:
At the end of the article, Schriver offers a Timeline of Plain Language: 1940 – 2015. The timeline reveals not only the events that have transpired to shape plain language over the past 75 years, but also the people. Some of the people who shaped the field will be familiar, including members of the Center for Plain Language, such as Ginny Redish, Annetta Cheek, Joseph Kimble, Susan Kleimann, Joanne Locke, and Melodee Mercer.
To read Schriver’s article and timeline, visit:
Schriver, Karen A. (2017). Plain language in the United States gains momentum: 1940-2015. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 60(4), 343–383.
Podcast about plain language
George Hayhoe, the editor of the IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication, interviewed Schriver for a podcast. It covers issues such as the why organizations still rely on readability formulas, building trust through plain language, international plain language, the legacy of the Document Design Project, and future of plain language.
If you have trouble accessing the article or the podcast, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author: Dr. Karen Schriver is a passionate advocate for plain language, information design, and people-centered communications. She is President of KSA Communication Design & Research, a consultancy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She served on the board of the Center for Plain Language for over a decade. Her book Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Texts for Readers has been called a classic. She is working on a book about evidence-based plain language and information design.