Why Plain Jane beats Flash Harry

January 31, 2003

Critics may dismiss it as dumbing down but, says Richard Freeman, simplifying language and presentation helps students to learn online

The average student is often unfamiliar with many words their tutors use. They may be specialist terms that students will master in time, or part of the language academics regularly use in conversation with peers or in books, journals and papers.

The difficulty for the student is that if meaning is not clear, the knowledge behind it is hidden. This stops learners from learning. When a wider variety of students, many with English as a second language, are working through course materials and assessments online, the language problem is more acute.

Over the past six months, I have worked with academics, museum curators and others to create a consortium of websites, called PortCities, for lifelong learners. The average reading age in the UK is 12 and some of our potential student audience may well fluctuate around that. Much of the material I was shown, however, used unnecessarily complicated language. Take, for example, "to raise the necessary finance" and "to find enough money" - which version would most readers prefer?

Getting academics, curators and other professionals to write in plain English is not easy. When pressed, they repeat two things: that this is another example of media-driven "dumbing down"; and that they do not know how to write more simply.

But if most people find reading online tiring, as research by the Nielson Group in 2001 found, then using fewer words can ease the effort. Academics are well advised to set a word limit for pages or sections when putting material online. The tools in many word processors keep track, but beware the grammar checker - it will not tell when words are used in the wrong context.

The level at which to pitch language can, however, pose a dilemma because it can involve altering personal writing style. Shorter sentences, for example, increase readability. Those linked by a raft of commas, colons or semi-colons do not. High-syllable words need filtering out. Specialist language used for the first time needs explaining. Students can then learn the phrases and terms important to the topic rather than being put off by words they have to look up. If more explanation is needed, a separate glossary can help.

An abstract or paragraph setting out what is to follow is helpful because readers can scan it to see if the material contains the facts they want.

Sub-headings in sentence form, rather than a few short points, are also useful. They guide learners as to the nature of the content in the paragraphs.

Language should be consistent. Many departments have a style guide with a list of common terms and phrases and their acceptable use. This helps when dealing with politically sensitive material or with simply knowing how to write 13th century. Consistency in look and feel is important, too. It helps a learner who moves from course to course, module to module.

Underlining text online is a no-no. This is how hyperlinks to other web pages are often shown. Italic text is harder to read. Bold text should also be used sparingly as it loses its effectiveness if overused. Large amounts of text in capital letters hides sentence structure.

Key points are better highlighted by bullet points and lists. Large areas of white space around content rests the eyes when reading. When writing about places, help people locate them by adding extra information, for example, Croydon in southeast London. If using weights and measures, find something that people can conceptualise, for example, a ship weighing 9,000 tonnes has the same weight as about 540 small rowing boats. Financial units can be translated into modern-day equivalents to show the spending power of 12 shillings today.

If you are "well on the way" to increasing the readability of your text and feel that there is "light at the end of the tunnel", remember that vernacular and common phrases are common only to certain people. They need to be put in to context.

Online learning material is very different from the printed page. Students want to click from page to page and also to related pages and sites. A website must be easy for people to find their way around.

Last of all, find out how other people view your material and its presentation. Put out a questionnaire or form online. If people give feedback, consider it carefully. Remember, they can be anywhere in the world - and that includes students and colleagues from other institutions.

Richard Freeman is educationist for PortCities, a partnership of maritime history websites for lifelong learners, funded by the New Opportunities Digitisation Fund Programme. Details: www.nmm.ac.uk

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