Specifying a reading age for web content

Many organisations have a reading age for their websites and publications. It’s for usability. GOV.UK had a reading age of 9 years old for citizen- and business-facing text and 14 years old for the corporate content (when I was there, they may have changed it now). In that time I came up against this as an argument a lot:

“9 year olds won’t want to read this, why are you writing to 9 year olds?” (This is often a precursor to the ‘you are dumbing it down’ wailing.)

Think about these stats:

That last point is a skill you will carry into adulthood. You are doing a version of it right now by scanning this text.

Writing for an age range isn’t the same as writing to that age. Most 9 year olds will not be interested in insurance or benefits applications (or content design if my children are anything to go by). But someone who is 49 with little time, a small phone screen or a life to live, will benefit from clear writing.

Good web content

Writing to the UK’s average reading age isn’t just about plain language and not using jargon; there’s more to it than that.

Take these examples:

Example one

It is a simple fact that constantly observing cold water raising in temperature until it arrives at the boiling point of 100 degrees, will not, in fact, make it come to that temperature any faster than say, staring at the nearest wallpaper.

Example two

Watching water boil won’t make it boil any faster.

See what I mean?

A 9-year old can read that first example (I know, I tested it on several of them). It’s just turgid and not to the point.  It’s using simple, plain language. It’s not as clear as the second example though. It’s not quick to digest the information.

Using plain language doesn’t mean short, terse or that it will lack atmosphere or feeling either. Try this:

We listened to the snow fall. You’d think it would be silent but it’s not. Not if you really, really listen. There’s a gentle thud of each tiny flake falling on its brother or sister, each nestling down for the winter.

To help anyone in child-sized reading group (so most of us who are scanning on a mobile phone):

  • keep your content to the point
  • use short sentences
  • one idea per paragraph
  • lots of sub-headings (helps with context and memory)
  • use more high-frequency words than low-frequency ones
  • explain technical terms the first time you use them on a page (you are potentially opening up your world to others, so share your knowledge)

Being clear in your language is the fastest route to helping someone else understand what you are trying to communicate.

Remember, writing to the average reading age of the UK is not about intelligence – it’s about speed. 

Speed of reading and comprehension. 

Nothing else.

9 year olds are just waiting to be taught something, like any adult who is not already familiar with a subject. Not knowing doesn’t make them unintelligent, it just means no-one has explained it yet. Writing to, or close to, the national average age means you are being inclusive and writing to how people read. It’s respectful.

Sarah Richards

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