Content accessibility part 1: speak plainly

18 May 2022

Lead Content Designer, Hannah Collins, unpacks what plain English is and why it is important for government services. Part 1 of our series on content accessibility.

‘Reading age of 9’ is a phrase you hear a lot in the public sector. (Generally preceded by a swear word.)

And look. I get it. It’s not easy making government policies and processes easy to read.

But the phrase ‘reading age of 9’ can be misleading. It does not mean you are targeting your content at 9-year-olds.

And it’s something all organisations must work towards to make their content accessible and inclusive.

Who decided on a reading age of 9?

The standard comes from the Government Digital Service (GDS). It’s used for all content on GOV.UK, and it is based on the average reading age in the UK.

According to the National Literacy Trust:

  • 1 in 7 adults in England have literacy levels at or below Entry Level 3. This is equal to the literacy skills expected of a nine to 11-year-old.
  • 1 in 6 adults in England, and 1 in 5 adults in Northern Ireland, have literacy levels at or below Level 1, or ‘very poor literacy skills’.

As well as this:

  • 3 million (or 1 in 10) people in the UK have dyslexia (source)
  • 1 million (or 1 in 5) people in the UK have a disability, including 19% of working-age adults (source)

GOV.UK aims for a reading age of 9 because they are writing for the lowest literacy level of their audience.

This ensures that everybody can access government services.

What does writing for a reading age of 9 involve?

By the time children are 9, they have a basic vocabulary of about 5,000 words in place.

They read these common words by recognising their shape, not reading them letter-by-letter. And according to GOV.UK, adults still find these words easier to recognise and understand than words they’ve learned since.

Writing for a reading age of 9 isn’t the same as writing for a 9-year-old.

It’s about making sure your content is quick to scan, easy to read and simple to understand.

Writing in this way is called plain English.

Case study: Scotland’s Census

Storm ID recently worked with National Records of Scotland (NRS) to redesign the Scotland’s Census website.

NRS had to make sure all people in Scotland can access and understand census information. Plain English was an important consideration.

The following images show pages relating to languages spoken in Scotland before and after the website redesign.

You can view these examples yourself on the archived site and new site.

Before: the old Scotland’s Census website

A screenshot of the ‘Ethnicity, Identity, Language and Religion’ page on the archived Scotland’s Census website.

The ‘Language’ section of the ‘Ethnicity, Identity, Language and Religion’ page on the archived Scotland’s Census website.

After: the new Scotland’s Census website

A screenshot of a web page showing a header field and simple article text broken up by line breaks and side headers.

A screenshot of the ‘Languages’ page on the new Scotland’s Census website.

What changed?

If you look at these two pages, you’ll notice the words used are not that different. It’s missing a few complex terms, but the biggest change is to the structure of the content.

What we did:

  • used section dividers, lists, short sentences and bold text to divide content into ‘chunks’
  • added summary text at the top of the page to tell people what to expect
  • removed distracting side-navigation elements
  • placed headers on the left to support scanning and an F-shaped reading pattern

The changes become more noticeable if you paste the text into Hemingway Editor:

A screenshot of web page text in Hemingway Editor, with yellow and red lines through it.

The previous page content shown in Hemingway Editor, with a grade 10 readability score.

A screenshot of text pasted into Hemingway Editor, with no yellow or red lines.

The new page content shown in Hemingway Editor, with a Grade 5 readability score.

In this example, you can see that the reading grade has decreased from Grade 10 to Grade 5.

Writing for specialist audiences

Right now you might be thinking, “That’s all well and good for GOV.UK and the census, but my audience is highly literate.”

Here’s what GDS has to say about that:

“Government experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they do not need to use plain English. This is wrong.

Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.

For example, research into use of specialist legal language in legal documents found:

  • 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English ­– and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference (for example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the Latin ‘inter alia’)
  • the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English”

­Note: In the above excerpt, GDS is referring to two research studies from 2012 and 2017 by Christopher Trudeau and Christine Cawthorne.  

The frazzled doctor check

What’s the busiest, most stressful job you can think of? An emergency department doctor has got to be on that list, right?

Imagine that doctor is reading information you’ve written about some new medical equipment. It’s really important they understand how to use that equipment before they treat a patient with it.


  • The easier your content is to read, the less time they need to spend with it.
  • The simpler it is to understand, the more likely it is they will take away something valuable from it.

Think about who your ‘doctor’ is when writing for specialist audiences.

You can influence their time, their understanding and their actions with plain English.

How we can help

Get in touch today to talk to us about how our expert user-centred design team can support your project.

Resources and further reading

The information in this post is based on the Writing for GOV.UK section of the GDS style guide.

You might also be interested in:

Thanks to National Records of Scotland for their permission to share the examples in this piece.

(And in case you were wondering. This blog is written in plain English.)




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