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‘Does He Take Sugar?’: The Risks of Standardising Easy-to-read Language

Posted by Brian Kelly on 19 December 2012

 'Does He Take Sugar?': The Risks of Standardising Easy-to-read LanguageBack in September 2012 in a post entitled “John hit the ball”: Should Simple Language Be Mandatory for Web Accessibility? I described the W3C WAI’s Easy to Read activity and the online symposium on “Easy to Read” (e2r) language in Web Pages/Applications.

The article highlighted the risks of mandating easy-to-read language and, following subsequent discussions with Alastair McNaught of JISC TechDis, led to a submission to the online symposium. Although reviewers of the paper commented that the submission provided “very sound ideas about how to approach e2r on level with other accessibility issues” and “The argument that the user perspective needs to be taken into account for discussing and defining “easy to read” makes a lot of sense” the paper was not accepted. Since the reviewers also suggested that “The authors should provide more material on how this step could be realized” and “More background on BS 8878 and a justification should be added” we decided to submit an expanded version of our paper to the current issue of the Ariadne Web magazine.

In subsequent discussions when preparing the paper I came across Dominik Lukeš, Education and Technology Specialist at Dyslexia Action, who has published research in the areas of language and education policy. Dominik’s blog posts, in particular a post on The complexities of simple: What simple language proponents should know about linguistics, were very relevant to the arguments which Alastair and myself had made in our original paper. I was therefore very pleased when Dominik agreed to contribute to an updated version of our paper. The paper, ‘Does He Take Sugar?’: The Risks of Standardising Easy-to-read Language, has been summarised by Richard Waller in his editorial for the current issue of Ariadne:

In “Does He Take Sugar?”: The Risks of Standardising Easy-to-read Language, Brian Kelly, Dominik Lukeš and Alistair McNaught highlight the risks of attempting to standardise easy-to-read language for online resources for the benefit of readers with disabilities. In so doing, they address a long-standing issue in respect of Web content and writing for the Web, i.e. standardisation of language. They explain how in the wake of the failure of Esperanto and similar artificial tongues, the latest hopes have been pinned on plain English, and ultimately standardised English, to improve accessibility to Web content. Their article seeks to demonstrate the risks inherent in attempts to standardise language on the Web in the light of the W3C/WAI Research and Development Working Group (RDWG) hosting of an online symposium on the topic. They describe the aids suggested by the RDWG such as readability assessment tools, as well as the beneficiaries of the group’s aims, such as people with cognitive, hearing and speech impairments as well as with readers with low language skills, including readers not fluent in the target language. To provide readers further context, they go on to describe earlier work which, if enshrined in WCAG Guidelines would have had significant implications for content providers seeking to comply with WCAG 2.0 AAA. They interpret what is understood in terms of ‘the majority of users’ and the context in which content is being written for the Web. They contend that the context in which transactional language should be made as accessible to everyone as possible differs greatly from that of education, where it may be essential to employ the technical language of a particular subject, as well as figurative language, and even on occasions, cultural references outside the ordinary. They argue that attempts to render language easier to understand, by imposing limitations upon its complexity, will inevitably lose sight of the nuances that form part of language acquisition. In effect they supply a long list of reasons why the use and comprehension of language is considerably more complex than many would imagine. However, the authors do not by any means reject out of hand the attempt to make communication more accessible. But they do highlight the significance of context. They introduce the characteristics that might be termed key to Accessibility 2.0 which concentrate on contextualising the use of content as opposed to creating a global solution, instead laying emphasis on the needs of the user. They proceed to detail the BS 8878 Code of Practice 16-step plan on Web accessibility and indicate where it overlaps with the WCAG guidelines. Having provided readers with an alternative path through the BS 8878 approach, they go on to suggest further research in areas which have received less attention from the WCAG guidelines approach. They touch upon the effect of lengthy text, figurative language, and register, among others, upon the capacity of some readers to understand Web content. The authors’ conclusions return to an interesting observation on the effect of plain English which might not have been anticipated – but is nonetheless welcome.

The article is of particular relevance since it brings home very clearly the limitations of WAI’s approach to Web accessibility and the belief that universal accessibility can be obtained by simply following a set of rules documented in the WCAG guidelines. As we’ve explained in the article, this isn’t the case for the language used in Web pages. However although the approach developed by WAI has significant flaws, the BS 8878 Code of Practice enables guidelines developed by WAI and other organisations to be used in a more pragmatic fashion. We hope that the experiences in using this Code of Practice described by EA Draffan in her talk on Beyond WCAG: Experiences in Implementing BS 8878 at the IWMW 2012 event help in the promoting greater use of this approach, including use of the standard to address the readability of Web pages.

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13 Responses to “‘Does He Take Sugar?’: The Risks of Standardising Easy-to-read Language”

  1. Eric Jones said

    I’m surprised and disappointed to see mention of “the failure of Esperanto”. From my point of view Esperanto is a great success, having survived 125 years of wars, econonomic and technological changes. To my miond Esperanto offers a lot of lessons to anyone interested in standardisation.

    • As the author of the “Esperanto failure” part, I’m not surprised at the negative reaction, but let me clarify. I was referring to the failure of Esperanto’s aspirations (if you forgive the pun). And in this no less an authority on Esperanto than John Wells agrees with me: “there is no contesting the claim that its primary aim has not been achieved. It has not become the second language for all. It is not the language in which one normally addresses a stranger when away from home.” (http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/esperanto_joke.htm)

  2. [...] Back in September 2012 in a post entitled “John hit the ball”: Should Simple Language Be Mandatory for Web Accessibility?  [...]

  3. Many ill-informed people think Esperanto “never took off” – other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.

    During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to Russia and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a living language – see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    Their new online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad :)

    • Sorry, but Esperanto is not in the top 100 languages of the world. Native speakers of Esperanto number in the low thousands. Which would put Esperanto at about number 4000. But even if we consider the number of “active” Esperanto speakers estimated at 2 million (http://www.esperanto.net/veb/faq-5.html), Esperanto wouldn’t make it into the top 200. Here’s a link to a list of languages with more than 3 million native speakers: http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=size. There are 172.

      The point is that no serious political negotiation has ever been conducted in Esperanto to reduce possible confusion. No serious business deals are being closed in Esperanto (although I’m sure there’ve been some). Almost no one is being instructed about the world in Esperanto. It may be a living language for a very small tribe of committed and vocal proponents. But it’s still a failure as a medium of world peace.

  4. Lee Kowalkowski said

    Being easy to read isn’t just about choice of language or only using simple words. How about having shorter sentences and paragraphs? Richard Waller’s are enormous!

    If we’re saying easy to read is not realistic, does that mean to give up altogether? At least read Wiio’s Laws of Communication before you do, this highlights what I believe is the real issues with reader comprehension. http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/wiio.html

    • Hi Lee

      What we are saying is that it would not be appropriate to follow easy-to-read guidelines in all circumstances – rather, there is a need to address the specific context of use. A humorous newspaper headline such as “Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious” may work in some circumstances, but we wouldn’t expect to see jokes when filling in an online tax form, for example

      We are definitely not saying that the guidelines for easy-to-read language should not be employed in some circumstances or that one should give up all together.

  5. [...] ‘Does He Take Sugar?’: The Risks of Standardising Easy-to-read Language [...]

  6. It’s important to distinguish between Easy to Read and Plain Language. Easy-to-Read focuses on simplified texts for people with cognitive, language, or learning disabilities. An example of an Easy-to-Read solution is the EasyRead system created in the UK and used for some government publications. Plain Language should also not be confused with commercial approaches such as the Plain English Campaign.

    Plain Language is an international approach to creating clear communication. It is based on the idea that information should be presented in a way that is appropriate for the intended audience. Asking general web users to sign off on agreements written in complex legal language is a good example of a situation that is neither plain nor usable. Some have argued that the complex language of housing mortgage agreements and related forms was partly to blame for triggering the current financial crisis. To see what plain language can do, take a look at the work of the (US) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and their newly designed mortgage disclosure forms. http://www.consumerfinance.gov/knowbeforeyouowe/

    The US Center for Plain Language first adopted a definition that is gaining support in other national PL groups. It is focused on readers, and insists on usability – not arbitrary formulas – as the test for whether something is plain.

    ===============

    Plain language is information that is focused on readers. When you write in plain language, you create information that works well for the people who use it, whether online or in print.

    Our measure of plain language is behavioral: Can the people who are the audience for the material quickly and easily

    find what they need
    understand what they find
    act appropriately on that understanding

    This means that the definition of “plain” depends on the audience. What is plain language for one audience may not be plain language for another audience.

    Plain language is more than just short words and short sentences — although those are often two very important guidelines for plain language. When you create information in plain language, you also organize it logically for the audience. You consider how well the layout of your pages or screens works for the audience.

    http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about-plain-language/

    ===============

    As a usability expert, user experience researcher and accessibility advocate, I think we’d all do well to stop thinking that standards are a magic wand. Standards are merely an expression of norms. Changing web sites — and the approach to creating them — so that they are usable for the widest possible audience takes change throughout the organization, not just ticking the boxes against technical requirements.

    • That’s a valid point Whitney, but even the guidelines on Plain Language (http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about-plain-language/checklist) still insist that it “minimizes jargon” which seems to me in direct contradiction to being “relevant to an audience”.

      Also, I’m not sure how guidelines like “Uses sentence structure, especially the verbs, to emphasize key information.” could be considered in any way plain. What’s wrong with nouns to emphasize key information? How about an example? It seems to me, that this sentence minimized jargon at the expense of making any sense (unless you know the internal workings of plain language).

      Why would “conversational style—rather than a stuffy, bureaucratic style” be any plainer or more friendly? What is conversational style? I’ve heard some pretty convoluted conversations.

      It seems to me that “plain language” and “plain language in documents issued by organizations to communicate with the general public” are two separate things. The latter is a worthwhile aim, the former is not. But the questions raised in the paper still apply: can some people be better at plain language than others, do you need instruction in plain language, are there plain language experts? All of those bring complexities beyond the structure of language itself. As you say, it takes more than just “ticking boxes” to craft accessible documents.

      • Of course there are people who are better at writing (in any style). And of course it takes training. Or, in some cases, undoing bad training. Do you think that lawyers all arrived at an incomprehensible writing style on their own? If you’d like a variety of voices in the plain language community about legal writing, a good place to start is with Judge Mark Painter and Professor Joseph Kimble. Some links here: http://plainlanguagenetwork.org/Legal/

        Personally, I’d be happy if we started with “plain language in documents issued by organizations to communicate with the general public” and that, in fact, is where a lot of work is being done. Explaining government benefits and regulation. Forms of all kinds. Information about health. The terms of agreements. And anything that has to be translated or read by non-native speakers.

        There are several reasons why a more conversational style is better. By “conversational” I mean a writing style that speaks directly to the reader, that uses clear sentence constructions, that (when giving instructions) emphasizes actions, and which puts information in a usable order.

        Which makes more sense to you:

        “When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.”
        or
        “If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.”

        Most of all, plain language produces real results.

        There is a growing body of case studies in which confusing letters, instructions and rules have been replaced with clearly written ones. The results include saving money or using staff time more effectively because staff spends less time answer questions, or forms are filled out more accurately, so can be dealt with more speedily. A state tax department collected $800,000 more in a year when a notice to business owners was re-written. There is a lot of evidence that people can read clearly written information faster (efficient) and more accurately (effective), and like it better (satisfying), making it more usable.

        I want to take issue with your assumption that plain language is only for people who don’t read well. In my work on a large cancer information site, I did a lot of usability testing with everyone from patients to general physicians to oncologists to cancer researchers. Despite fears that writing in a plainer style would make the information seem less authoritative, we found that everyone liked the versions that were written clearly and presented with good information design. And made fewer mistakes in reading it. In one project, we took the bold step of presenting a list of items in a vertical list, instead of a paragraph. There were audible sighs of relief at how much easier is was to scan the page to find the (in this case) clinical trial results they were looking for.

        And about jargon. Even oncologists were pleased when the simplest accurate word was used. And, though cancer researchers could rattle off a mind-bending string of scientific terms, they were often stumped by the jargon from pages on topics like government grants proposals. Do we really need to say “Failure of recollection is common. Innocent recollection is not uncommon”? That was rewritten in the California State court Instructions to the Jury” as “People often forget things or make mistakes in what they remember.” I, for one, hope that juries understand what they are being told.

        I wonder why you are so resistant to the idea of plain language.

      • Hi Whitney, I’m not at all resistant to the idea of making official documents easier to understand. In fact, I have seen many commendable results in practice. Particularly when I compare documents across countries.

        What I am critiquing is the idea that plain language is some sort of natural form of language that gets left over when the jargon and bureaucratese are dealt with. I wrote about the issues in much more details in http://metaphorhacker.net/2012/09/the-complexities-of-simple-what-simple-language-proponents-should-know-about-linguistics. There I critiqued the list of the Plain English Campaign that I see are not a problem with the Center for Plain Language checklist. But my position remains: “Simple language is its own form of expression. It is not the natural state we get when we strip out all the artifice out of our communication.”

        But even that page is a good example of how hard it is to follow the rules and that simple doesn’t always mean accessible. For instance, instead of using headings to mark sections of the page, it just bolds the key words in the relevant paragraph (bending one of its own suggestions). This makes the page exponentially more difficult for blind readers and a lot less friendly to dyslexic readers, as well.

        It is also a good example of why contextualization is important. The whole section on testing makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s obviously a reference to other conversations in the community – the whole topic (not just individual words) are jargon. Expanding the number of words in that section would certainly extend the comprehensibility of it. As such it is not clear who or what is being tested by whom, how and for what purpose – all expressed through “plain language”.

        Also, the suggestion that “Author—whether an individual or an organization—creates a sense of reliability and trustworthiness.” Ignores the fact, that very often lack of comprehension is used to create a sense of reliability and trustworthiness (albeit often false). It certainly does not mean demonstrating “concern for the audience”. Again, the content is not the only thing being communicated. Just look at the mixed reception of modern Bible translations.

        Another example of the Plain Language creating its own jargon hard to understand to outsiders is your redefinition of “conversational”. You say.

        “By “conversational” I mean a writing style that speaks directly to the reader, that uses clear sentence constructions, that (when giving instructions) emphasizes actions, and which puts information in a usable order.”

        But that is not what everybody else in the world means by conversational. In linguistics, it has its own definitions (from Conversation Analysis) but the “plain” understanding of the word is something like loose and informal language, part of a back-and-forth exchange. But a government document does not have any back-and-forth. It needs to provide all the context that conversation relies on and has no facility for conversation repair (a common feature of conversation).

        So again, I have nothing against, the aim of making official documents more accessible to more people by using language more relevant to them. My only opposition is to the idea that such language is “plain” in the sense of having no embellishments.

  7. @Whitney Quesenbery

    Many thanks for your comments.

    When you say “ I’d be happy if we started with “plain language in documents issued by organizations to communicate with the general public”” I would point out that our original article has a different starting point: beyond simple information services “there are many other contexts with very different user profiles. It is vital to distinguish between content, culture and context“.

    The article provided examples of circumstances in which being witty (“Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious”) may be relevant, as well as the examples of poetry and culture. Clearly novelists who make use of an Unreliable narrator also have a desire to hide the truth, for literary purposes. But even government information services may sometimes find it useful at times to avoid use of plain language which is understood by everyone; for example, an anti-drugs campaign aimed at a specific community may use language used by that community to provide a sense of self-identity and deliberately provide barriers to those outside of the community.

    As we said in our article: “The challenge lies in providing the contextualisation needed to be able to respond to a diverse range of requirements“. Our article is in agreement with the sentiment expressed in your comment “ I think we’d all do well to stop thinking that standards are a magic wand” which highlighted the naive attempts to mandate plain English in early versions of WCAG 2.0. However a standards, such as BS 8878, which seeks to standardise processes which are relevant in particular circumstances, may be of relevance.

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