Plain Language and Readability

What is plain language?

Plain language writing, also called plain writing or plain English, is content written in simpler and more easily understandable language. While standard content in your museum or historic site should generally be written at an 8th grade reading level, providing a plain language version makes your content more accessible to more people. 

Why does this matter?

While plain language improves the accessibility of content for people with intellectual, developmental, and learning disabilities, this option also benefits people with low reading literacy, people who are encountering a new topic or new language, and really, anyone reading your content. Providing content at different levels of readability makes it easier and more comfortable for people of all reading levels to learn and engage with our exhibits.

In 2002, The National Adult Literacy Survey found that only up to an estimated 51% of U.S. adults can read at or below an 8th grade level. Further, Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander adults are more likely to read at or below that level. To make our content more accessible, we should write our standard content for no higher than an 8th grade reading level. Providing access to lower levels of reading proficiency supports access and agency within museum spaces for many marginalized groups, not just for people with disabilities.

In addition to the standard content, providing a plain language version — typically written for a 4th to 5th grade level —   allows even more visitors to engage with our content: visitors with low literacy, intellectual, developmental, and learning disabilities, or are learning and practicing English. This is not only a pathway towards decolonizing cultural spaces, but a way to get more people excited about the knowledge you’re excited to share.

While plain language isn’t a legal requirement, it could be interpreted as one way to meet the “effective communication” requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. By not addressing the readability of your content, you could be actively discriminating against users with learning disabilities.

How do we write readable content?