December 17, 2011

Too much paper keeps people homeless

If you are homeless in Vancouver and you want to live in public housing, there is a paper wall to keep you out:

  • The basic application form is 13 pages long.
  • The additional form required of those who have been homeless is 9 pages long.
  • And then you must complete a form for each individual housing project that you might live in.
  • Supplemental forms like an application for a copy of a birth certificate.

Picture a destitute family about to lose their housing. Someone in the family must be calm and collected and literate enough to fill out 2 of the forms above. The 2nd form must be completed for each of the housing projects they might qualify for.

Picture a destitute person who has been sleeping under a bridge for month or years. She must complete all three sets of forms–while she is anxious, hungry, and weary.

You see the wall there?

Have you heard of situational limited literacy? That’s when the context or the circumstances are so stressful or overwhelming that whatever literacy skills you have had in the past, they are not available to you in the present moment.

Since so few people get over that wall, a local group has formed for the purpose of documenting the homeless in their neighborhood and completing the application forms.

I have not seen these forms so I can’t tell you whether they are in plain language but I would say the odds are against it.

November 10, 2011

Plain Language and Public Literacy Are Linked

A recent news article referred to my years of work promoting plain legal language and legal literacy:

Thinking about this, two things came to mind and I want to address them.

1. Plain Language vs Literacy

Twenty years ago many plain language proponents wanted to draw a bold line between the plain language and literacy issues. I think it was a defensive response to the accusations that we wanted to “dumb-down” legal writing and force lawyers to write to the “illiterate”.

In the Canadian Bar Association activities, we sometimes referred to “legal literacy” in an effort to point out that even the literate client lacked the legal context to understand much of legal writing. That is one way to deal with the barbs, but it still avoids the literacy issue.

2. Audience: a general public?

When the intended audience for a piece of legal information or for a consumer contract is the general public, literacy is an issue. Most plain language proponents would have said then that there is no “general public” since we do not have adequate information about their needs and abilities.

Twenty years ago, the first international literacy surveys were beginning to tell us quite a lot. We now know the literacy abilities of the working population versus the whole adult population. We know the differences in reading abilities between the native English speakers and others for whom English is not their first or preferred language.

Canada is one of the most literate countries, but we learned that about 17% Canadian of the  public could only recognize words or phrases but not decipher sentences.  About 26% could get meaning from sentences, but not well enough to decipher legalese. Another 35% has functional reading skills but cannot cope with legal jargon and does not have the context needed to truly grasp legal warnings, procedures, and instructions.

So, when we are dealing with the general public, especially in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic society, we need to be clear, straight-forward, and thorough in the information we convey and how we say it.

A plain language writer or editor who does not understand the literacy situation in their country, does not understand their public.

October 13, 2011

Congratulations International Plain Language Day Supporters

Plain language, then and now
By Cheryl Stephens

In the 17th century Latin and French dominated England’s royal court and law courts, while the working people in the streets were demanding plain old English. Plain language remains a democratic demand and a civil right into the 21st century.
Australian Robert Eagleson was touring Canada, when I first heard of plain language.

In 1989 he shared his experiences as a professor of English and a consultant to law firms and government with the Canadian plain language movement. Clarity, an international association of lawyers favoring plain legal language, was already promoting clear legal writing from it base in England under the leadership of solicitor Mark Adler.

With Kate Harrison Whiteside, I founded what is now the Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN) in 1993. It is now one for the groups leading the international movement along with Clarity and the Washington.DC-based Center for Plain Language.

Leading from the heart at the Center is Annetta Cheek, a veteran of 25 years with the U.S. government. Annetta was the key lobbyist in getting the US Plain Writing Act passed in 2010. From the anniversary on October 13, U.S. government staff must write plainly all forms and information concerning public benefits and services.

This major accomplishment has inspired plain language proponents all over the world to renewed efforts. It was this that led me to persuade Kate Harrison Whiteside that we have an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the last 30 years in providing clear understandings to our publics.

So Kate and I declared October 13, 2011 the first annual International Plain Language Day. This late inspiration gave us only weeks to organize but the Internet has brought both a greater demand for plain language and the tools to organize quickly. Many activities will take place in several countries.

Individuals like Mark, Robert, Annetta, Kate, and I, who are passionate about the issue, have kept the movement alive even when changes in political regimes cancelled projects and institutions. I thank them for their pioneering activism and camaraderie in the early days of our movement.

I am proud that the Mayor of Vancouver has proclaimed October 13 International Plain Language Day for my city. I encourage others to start now to get a proclamation from their own city next year.

October 12, 2011

How to spend International Plain Language Day October 13

No event in your area? Here is how to spend your day October 13

• Sleep late.
• Read a newspaper with your cup of coffee. Use a red pen to circle tired, trite phrases, mixed metaphors, bafflegab, and other writing offences. Submit those to the collection on
• Phone the paper’s editorial offices and advise them to use plain language.
• Send a message to a friend; review it and rewrite those parts that could be misunderstood.
• Send another message, to many friends, and ask them to join the largest, international network of Plain Language Advocates, a LinkedIn group.
• Select an important piece from your morning mail: a consumer contract, a bank statement, a credit card statement, something from an insurance agency or car rental company, or local gym, and actually read every word of it. Call the company and ask them to explain the meaning of each sentence that is not clear and the circumstances under which each sentence would be used.
• Take time for lunch!
• Call your local continuing education program and ask if they have a course in plain language.
• If anybody asks, tell them: Plain language is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary… It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the language. (Robert Eagleson)
• Post your experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #iplday
• Order a plain language writing guide online.
• Check the procedures online and get the scoop on how to have your mayor proclaim next October 13 as International Plain Language Day. Make a note on your calendar to do it.
• Have a nap–it has been a long day.

September 24, 2011

The evolution of the writing paradigm – 4th in a series

This is the 4th is a series of posts questioning the current challenge of applying cognitive fluency to plain language writing.

I introduced earlier a paper written to summarize the current situation and discuss cognitive fluency applied to legal writing. And the Winner Is: How Principles of Cognitive Science Resolve the Plain Language Debate Julie A. Baker Associate Professor of Legal Writing, Suffolk University Law School Social Science Research Network:

I will summarize now what I quoted last week and add my personal opinions. In my next post, I will begin to tackle the principles of cognitive fluency.

The classical approach to persuasion set the communication pattern as a triad of audience-purpose-message and this paradigm was being taught to us when I started in plain language in 1989. According to Baker’s construction of history this was replaced by the new rhetoric. The new rhetoric saw writing as a conversation between the writer and the reader. She says the new rhetoric focused on brevity and clarity to improve reader comprehension.

Baker also sets out five theses she claims were incorporated from classical rhetoric into the new rhetoric:

(1)   Writing is recursive rather than linear.

(2)   Writing is rhetorically-based.

(3)   Writing is evaluated according to how well it serves the writer’s intent.

(4)   Writing is a creative activity that can be analyzed, described, and taught.

(5)   Teaching writing is well-served by linguistic research and research into the composing process.

Nowhere in her list do we find the reader. Baker says the new rhetoric evolved to become the platform for plain language. And the plain language movement introduced the concern for making writing understandable for the reader.  It seems obvious to plain language writers that a conversation needs 2 participants.

In general, I can accept her vision of an evolution from the earliest communication triad to the current plain language approach. Through discussions with others in plain language, I believe we now need redefine our plain language paradigm to describe how we seek to align the purposes of both writer and reader and to merge their challenges and constraints in order to ensure a clear and mutual understanding of their conversation.

I am, however, concerned that insisting on using evaluation methods to ensure understanding should not be the end of the argument about what plain language is. In the last 30 years, there has been much scientific discovery that can tell us what will make our writing easy to understand. It will enlighten us about reader’s cognitive patterns and needs. It will also help us to modify writing to suit specific purposes: learning, remembering, analyzing, problem-solving, decision-making, and judgment. The application of the current learning is a challenge to us. Taking the research further and applying it to writing is a challenge for neuroscientists and cognitive psychology, but I think we need to bring this to their attention.

When a law is in place penalizing people for not writing to be understood, shouldn’t we learn what science can tell us about how people understand?


September 19, 2011

Applying Cognitive Psychology to Modulate Fluency

This is the third in a series of posts in which I am asking readers to express their views on the application of cognitive psychology to plain language practices. See Part One and Part Two.

As promised, I will introduce you to this article today:

And the Winner Is: How Principles of Cognitive Science Resolve the Plain Language Debate
by Julie A. Baker Associate Professor of Legal Writing, Suffolk University Law School

by means of a summary. But first, I know this article is not easy reading, but rather than criticize Baker’s legal style, let’s search it for the usable ideas.

I will give  3 reasons why I think you should read the full article:

  1. Baker summarizes the history of the genre of legal writing through these forms:
    • traditional style,
    • New Rhetoric,
    • Plain Language as a consumer movement, and
    • new efforts to adopt the scientific learning acquired though neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
  2. Baker concludes that we can and ought to modulate our writing style within a single document to move between
    • a. pleasing readers and making some information easy for them to process with the simplest method our brains employ
    • b. challenging readers to engage in logical analysis when needed for our purpose.
  3. Hers is the first article I have found that applies the concept of fluency in a practical way to a specific writing genre.

Moderating Fluency

The main point I want you to consider is Baker’s conclusion that, examined through the lens of cognitive fluency, the competing approaches to legal writing are not mutually exclusive, but should be viewed more like “endpoints” on the spectrum of language available to the writer. Knowing this, an effective writer is can achieve credibility and persuasive force through deliberate, conscious choice of language from across this spectrum of complexity and clarity.

[Using] fluency principles going forward

Recent cognitive studies have shown that while more fluent words are easier and more familiar, they are also less stimulating, and cause our brains to engage much less when processing them. Less fluent communications, on the other hand, require the brain to engage in more complex processing – which also means processing that is more careful and, often, more interesting.

Less fluent communications have been found to heighten risk perception among readers, too. Thus, skillful legal writers should actually be able to choose the level at which they cause their readers to engage by choosing the level of fluency that they employ – always taking care to make their writing neither too simplistic, nor so complicated that the reader gets frustrated and simply gives up…
“Cognitive Fluency…is a key indicator not only of whether and how people understand information, but also of people’s judgments regarding that information. In other words, the more “fluent” a piece of written information is, the better a reader will understand it, and the better he or she will like, trust and believe it.”

Along the way to reaching this conclusion, Baker describes earlier approaches (as she sees them):

New Rhetoric
“New Rhetoric” attempted to solve these deficiencies by considering not only the finished form, but the process as well. This new rhetoric acknowledged that legal writing was a conversation between the writer and the reader. Most notably, the new rhetoric paradigm focused on brevity and clarity throughout the writing process to improve reader comprehension. The new rhetoric method applied the five basic theses of classical rhetoric to legal writing pedagogy:

(1) that writing is recursive rather than linear;
(2) that writing is rhetorically based;
(3) that the written product is evaluated based on how well it fulfills the writer’s intent;
(4) that writing is a creative activity that can be analyzed, described, and taught; and
(5) that the teaching of writing is well-served by linguistic research and research into the composing process.

The Plain Language Approach
The ideas supporting new rhetoric evolved to become the platform for plain language. Advocates for the new plain language approach theorized that the effective conversation sought by the proponents of new rhetoric could not be achieved until the language it was conducted in was intelligible to the reader. If the objectives of legal writing were to be clear, simple, and persuasive, then writing in plain language was the best way to further those objectives.
Plain language is more than just writing in simple terms and striving for brevity… Writers employing plain language plan, design, and organize their documents in an overall effort to achieve clear communication with the reader. Plain language writers also use straightforward sentences and simple words, so that the writing does not interfere with the goals of communication and comprehension.
This, too, is important for the legal writer to understand — because the possibility exists to consciously elicit varying levels of fluency in order to trigger a particular type of reasoning.

This paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network:

September 18, 2011

Cognitive Fluency and Plain Language – 2

K.D. Hoffman has expertise in applying theoretical communication to real world endeavors. Her blog is Healthy Change Communications. This is a blog about health communications. Hoffman says, “It’s about using behavioral science to deeply understand specific audiences. With deep understanding, health communicators can engage and inspire change, whether in the individual or in society.”

A current series of blog posts addresses the idea of Targeting vs Tailoring communication. The second post is relevant to our discussion and offers some more introductory-level explanation of cognitive fluency.

Part Two: Engagement…or how to make it matter

“We process messages in two ways, via central or peripheral processing… When people have little interest in a message, they tend to process it peripherally. When processing peripherally, they don’t think about the arguments in the message but rather they use cues like attractiveness, reputation or credibility to guide their decision to perform a behavior….

Alternatively, central processing is energy consuming. It is only engaged in when a message is very important and relevant to the person and when the person has the intellectual or technical ability… Processing centrally requires careful listening and evaluation of message content… Central processing is more likely to lead to long-term and stable change.

One of the best ways to engage the central processing route is to make your message relevant to the audience.  Tailoring achieves relevance.”

The full series of posts is available here, and there is more to come:

Part One Part Two PartThree

Expertise as Peripheral Processing

Now consider this older, alternate perspective from our new lens of cognitive fluency.  It provides a hint of the transition to be made in our thinking about writing to make thinking easy for readers with different levels of contextual knowledge.

From Farnam Street blog, On expertness and intuition, An excerpt fromHerbert Simon:
“We have seen that a major component of expertise is the ability to recognize a very large number of specific relevant cues when they are present in any situation, and then to retrieve from memory information about what to do when those particular cues are noticed.

“Because of this knowledge and recognition capability, experts can respond to new situations very rapidly- and usually with considerable accuracy. Of course, on further thought, the initial reaction may not be the correct one, but it is correct in a substantial number of cases and is rarely irrelevant. We usually use the word “intuition” – sometimes also “judgment” or even “creativity” – to refer to this ability of experts to respond to situations in their domains of expertise almost instantaneously and relatively accurately. [these] skills have the same basis in knowledge and recognition capability.”

From Simon’s book, Models of My Life. For more: Solution by Recognition and Choice Under Uncertainty.


September 16, 2011

How Will Knowledge of Cognitive Fluency Change Plain Language

I’d like to invite you to join me in a conversation on how recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and neuroscience affect how we go about producing plain language and how we define or describe it.

Twenty years ago, we were saying to training groups that “recent brain research” was changing what we knew about how people process language. Now we are being told that the research in the past 10 to 15 years has dramatically changed what we know about memory and thinking processes.

The volume of that research has now reached a point that it can be consolidated and applied to practical fields—like plain language writing. Luckily for me, articles are now being written that can be understood by those of us who are not scientists. As these articles begin to popularize these new concepts and their practical applications, we need to reinterpret “plain language”.

I’d like to start that discussion here and now. We can’t wait for papers to be delivered at biennial conferences.

I am not a scientist, so I could only summarize what I have read. I would prefer to exchange ideas and interpretations with my peers before stating anything with a sense of certainty. And I welcome you to invite any cognitive psychologist to join our discussion.

First, here are a few definitions:

“..Psychological research on meta-cognition: thoughts about other thoughts. Whether or not something is easy to think about—cognitive fluency—is one important type of meta-cognition, with all sorts of benefits accruing to things that are easily processed…”

“Processing fluency is the ease with which information is processed in the mind. The ease with which perceptual stimuli are processed is perceptual fluency; the ease with which information can be retrieved from memory is retrieval fluency.”

The current notion seems to be that writing that uses familiar words and concepts and presented in familiar formats will be quickly and easily processed by using a default method of thinking.

Julia Baker describes the 2 mental processes:

Psychology – and cognitive theory in particular – recognize two unique systems for information processing. The first system is the “associative system,” which operates by comparing a novel stimulus with known information about the world. This system of analysis is based primarily on probabilities and assessing new stimuli by referencing previously perceived objects. This system is often characterized by quick, automatic reasoning decisions based on inferences.

The second system is referred to as a “rule-based,” product, or analytic system. It allows for a conscious consideration of the stimulus in decision-making situations. By actively considering multiple options, explanations and deviations, this system attempts to describe the world through logical analysis. Decisions made via this system can produce thorough reasoning, rather than mere predictions as offered by the associative system, which relies on known experiences.

Fluency plays a role in determining which mental operation is used for information processing. In familiar situations, individuals are likely to employ System 1 processing. Because an analogy can be formed from past experience, the more detailed analysis of System 2 is not needed. Importantly, the root of the analysis (and system choice) is the formulation of a confidence judgment, based on fluency, about how known or familiar a new stimulus seems. Where the stimulus is novel or “disfluent,” the problem solver will likely opt to use a System 2 analysis and thoroughly.

Julie Baker also describes the tactic of moderating fluency:

Fluent writing inspires feelings of ease, confidence, and trust in readers (while legalese is “disfluent,” engendering feelings of dislike and mistrust).

(I’ll give you Baker’s citation Monday)

So sometimes, when our purpose is to invoke analytical thinking or to be persuasive, we may choose more difficult, less fluent language that will engage the logical system of thought processing. This suggests we can “moderate the fluency” of writing to produce the most effective writing by engaging the anyalytical processing level when we want readers to learn or make important decisions.

I will be giving you links to current articles that might serve as a basis for our conversation. These items starting with the most popular in style. Wikipedia does have some articles on this. Each day, I will introduce you to a new article. And please tell us about the ones that you find.

The must-read article today:

Easy = True


September 12, 2011

Help Promote International Plain Language Day

September 12, 2011
International Plain Language Day global support grows 

International Plain Language Day (IPLD) October 13, 2011 is gaining global support from plain language professionals in Sweden, the UK, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, India, and Africa.Events and contests are being planned in various localities.

“The movement for plain language is really growing. For example, LinkedIn’s Plain Language Advocates Group I host is nearing 800 international members.” said Cheryl Stephens, a leader in the movement and an expert in plain legal language, “From October 13, U.S. government materials written for the public must be in plain language.We’ve chosen this date to celebrate hard-won achievements in many countries who are making materials understandable and usable.”

“Plain Language” is the design of clear information focused on the reader, to fit the reader’s information needs and reading abilities.

“Cheryl Stephens and I started the international plain language network and conferencing in the early 90s using only email and web pages,” said Kate Harrison Whiteside, a social media and plain language consultant. “For IPLD we are using all the social technology available to get world-wide support for this important day.”

The health, legal, government, banking, social, education and business sectors around the world are all making progress in recognizing the need and the demand for plain language, and putting it on their agendas.

“We need to keep raising the demand for plain language from the public,” said Stephens. “Plain language is now recognized world-wide; the next step is to have it integrated into all communication training and delivery. The importance of communicating clearly to our audience is ever greater.”

On October 13, 2011, people and organizations will be hosting events online, in offices, and on the streets to mark their support for putting readers first in communication by using plain language.

Cheryl Stephens,  1-604- 802-9606
Kate Harrison Whiteside, 1-587-896-5377

International Plain Language Day Links
IPLD Facebook Page
Twitter – #iplday

Background documents and graphics are available at

September 8, 2011

International Literacy Day

Read for International Literacy Day

Literacy Facts: How low literacy affects people

Complete set of fact sheets from PoliceABC

Administrative Tribunals Consider Literacy

Information posters on literacy


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