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Plain Language: A Promising Strategy for Clearly Communicating Health Information and Improving Health Literacy





Making Health Communication Programs Work – The chapter titled Developing and Pretesting Concepts, Messages, and Materials provides guidelines to help develop materials that intended audiences will understand, accept, and use. It also addresses how to develop effective print material for low-literacy audiences.

Clear & Simple: Developing Effective Print Materials for Low-Literate Readers – Low-literacy experts have identified key principles for developing effective materials for people with low-literacy skills. These principles are summarized in the checklist found in this publication at Step 4: Develop Content and Visuals.

Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) – Federal employees remain at the center of the plain-language movement in the United States. They created a Web site to help others learn about and use plain language. Writing Reader-Friendly Documents is its major guidance document “…to help you write plain-language documents that your readers understand on first reading" ( Several other resources can be found at Quick tips are found at

Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines translates research into practical, easy-to-understand guidelines to help those in charge of Federal Web sites save time and resources. Chapter 15, Writing Web Content,, recommends using many plain-language techniques, such as:

  • When preparing prose content for a Web site, use familiar words and avoid the use of jargon.

  • If acronyms and abbreviations must be used, ensure that they are clearly understood by typical users and defined on the page.

  • Minimize the number of words in a sentence and sentences in a paragraph.

  • Use upper- and lower-case letters appropriately.

  • Write in an affirmative, active voice.

Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills, 2nd Edition, by Cecilia and Leonard Doak and Jane Root, is intended for healthcare practitioners and those who teach them. It provides ideas, methods, and examples on how to simplify health instructions so that they are understood better by patients at all literacy levels—including those with low-literacy skills.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web Sites contain a wealth of health and literacy resources, including plain language:

Understanding Health Literacy and Its Barriers, from the National Library of Medicine, provides 651 citations from a variety of disciplines to highlight resources available to medical, health, education, and communication professionals as they tackle this important national challenge. Selections are from health education, communication, risk, compliance, informed consent, professional-patient interaction, cultural competence, and health disparities research.

Low Literacy, High Risk: The Hidden Challenge Facing Healthcare in California shares the results of a pilot study that found low literate adults in California are marginalized by the healthcare system because the process of obtaining healthcare requires specialized knowledge that only highly literate individuals can easily and consistently access. One policy implication arising from this study is that plain-language materials should be available to patients at every stage of the healthcare process, and that doctors should use plain language. A summary of the study can be found at

Pfizer’s Principles for Clear Health Communication provides guidelines for creating health information and patient education materials that are accessible to a broad consumer audience.

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International Plain-Language Movement

Plain Language Around the Globe
In addition to the United States, several nations including Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, and South Africa are encouraging its use. Some nations, such as England and Canada, have been in the forefront of this movement for decades. Others, such as Mexico, are new to this idea and enthusiastic about the need to use plain, clear language to communicate with its citizens.

In 2005, two international plain-language conferences were held:

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