Writing Technical Content for Low-Literacy and Struggling Readers

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Are your readers “strong” readers or “struggling” readers? Struggling readers can read. They can sound out words, but they can’t always understand what they read. How relevant are these readers for your technical communications work? This Q&A should help you devise a strategy for writing technical content that supports your audience members who happen to be struggling readers.

Why should tech writers care about struggling readers?

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy (1) 43% of the total U.S. population has low literacy. In addition, Nielsen estimates that 30% of web users have low literacy (2).

Further, we know that reading comprehension drops when anyone tries to read unfamiliar information, whether they are “struggling,” “lower literacy” or not (3).

Those of us who write content, particularly in the following areas, should care deeply about whether our readers can understand our content:

  • Government
  • Health
  • Retail
  • Human Resources (4)

What are some of the attributes of struggling versus strong readers?

The following list of attributes of struggling and strong readers comes from research on reading comprehension chronicled in several books for teachers of adolescent “struggling” readers. This list (5) represents only a few of the characteristics that researchers have identified: I chose the below characteristics because they relate to technical content that struggling readers have trouble with.

Struggling Readers Strong Readers
Resist reading tasks Confidently approach reading tasks
Possess limited background knowledge Think about their background knowledge before reading
Need guidance for reading tasks Read independently
Possess a limited vocabulary Possess an extensive vocabulary
Give up when reading is difficult or uninteresting Persevere with even unfamiliar passages
Forget or mix up information Add new information to their knowledge base
Are unaware of what organizational cues mean Use text structure to aid in understanding
Do not possess strategies for holding onto thoughts Organize and keep track of ideas by doing such things as taking notes and checking tasks off on a checklist.

We technical writers plan our content, design our formatting, and keep usability in mind because we want our readers to remain strong.

Which Tech Writing Conventions Help Struggling Readers?

Technical writers have developed a number of conventions that make content easier for struggling readers to comprehend:

Infographics, outlines, and checklists

Strong readers visualize in order to learn and remember information from what they read. Struggling readers don’t create their own ways to hold onto their new information or their thinking while they are reading. Checklists help them to keep track of their thinking, and infographics help them to visualize what they are reading.

Explanations of jargon or minimal use of jargon.

Readers struggle sometimes because they don’t understand the unfamiliar words we use. As Tara Westover writes in her novel, Educated, unfamiliar words make us struggle to the point that we give up. Those unfamiliar words are like “black holes, sucking all the other words into them” (6).

Instructions for the technology “true beginner”

True beginners might not know, for example, that to access a command button one must scroll over an empty area of the website. True beginners might not know what the three parallel lines are in the menu, or even what a menu is.

Headings, sub-headings, line spaces, and indention
These organizational cues help our readers to scan to find specific information,  to understand what ideas “go under” or belong to bigger ideas, and to notice how ideas relate to other ideas in our documents.

Organizational patterns

Familiar structural patterns help our readers find information in familiar and fast ways. For example, the table of contents, the glossary, and the list of figures are most often in the beginning or back of a report. Sticking to familiar patterns reduces the amount a reader has to learn in order to make use of our content.

Do tech writing conventions help all struggling readers?

Strong readers use these technical writing conventions in order to make sense of our content. Struggling readers, on the other hand, might ignore our tech writing conventions because they are unaware of what our conventions tell them (7).

For example, not all readers understand that they can use our headings to get the gist of our content and to enable them to skip to read only the section of our content that they need at the moment. Struggling readers sometimes believe that they have to read all written content from top to bottom, front to back. They carry their storybook-reading strategy of careful word-by-word reading to their experiences with informational text, such as user documentation and other complex reading material (8).

What else can I do to make my content accessible for those with low reading ability and low technological literacy?

The Nielsen Norman Group researched how to make internet content better for “lower-literacy” users.  Lower literacy users include those whose technological literacy is low and those whose reading comprehension abilities are low. Nielsen’s definition of a “lower literacy” user is “people who can read but have difficulty doing so.”

The Nielsen research suggests that we do the following to improve our content for lower literacy web users. 

Improving Content for Lower-Literacy Web Users

  1. Write text at the 6th grade reading level on the
    • Homepage
    • Important Category Pages
    • Landing Pages
  2. Write other pages at the 8th grade level.
  3. Put the most important information at the top of the page, paragraph, or section. That way readers see our most important information, even if they give up before the end.

Nielsen also suggests a few more design techniques that you can access on the Nielsen Norman Group website (9).

For more information about how to evaluate your content grade levels, see this document on using Microsoft Word to calculate grade level: http://casemed.case.edu/cpcpold/students/module4/word_readability.pdf.

Many tech writers believe, that while the grade level formulas Nielson recommends should be a tool, they can be dangerous, lulling us into a false belief that we have met the needs of our readers (10). These tech writers believe that we should go beyond writing to a grade level formula such as the Flesch-Kincaid. While grade level formulas are an interesting place to start making content simple, grade level formulas don’t tell us all we need to know about comprehensibility of text. For example, just because a text is at the 6th grade level according to a formula doesn’t mean that all 6th graders can understand it.

How can audio and video help struggling readers?

Many lower literacy users and struggling readers are auditory learners who learn best by listening. These learners prefer spoken rather than written instructions, for example (11). Teachers who work with struggling readers sometimes find it helpful to explain not only what content means but also how to read that content: how it is structured, the organizational cues that tell us about the structure, and which words and ideas are important to understand. Audio and video tours of our content can do the same thing for auditory learners: in these tours we can explain how to read our content, including the content’s

  • structure
  • organizational cues
  • main ideas
  • headings
  • important words

Help both struggling and strong readers

When we help struggling readers, we also help strong readers:  we all benefit from things like familiar vocabulary, headings, checklists, and organizational cues.  Thank you, technical writers, for creating content to keep readers strong and to provide easier access for struggling readers.


(1) National Assessment of Adult Literacy: https://nces.ed.gov/naal/

(2) Nielsen, J. (2005) “Writing for lower literacy users” Nielsen Norman Group.  https://www.nngroup.com/articles/writing-for-lower-literacy-users/

(3) Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? p.41. Stenhouse Publishers.

(4) Nielsen, J. (2005) “Writing for lower literacy users” Nielsen Norman Group.  https://www.nngroup.com/articles/writing-for-lower-literacy-users/

(5) Irvin, J., Buehl, D.,  Klemp, R. (2006). Reading and the High School Student (p. 67-69) Pearson. Also see Schoenback, Greenleaf, C. and Murphy, L. (2012). Reading for Understanding, 2nd edition (p. 35-39). Jossey-Bass.

(6) Westover, T. (2018). Educated. p. 156. Random House.

(7) Tovani, C. (2000). I read it but I don’t get it. p. 54, 55. Stenhouse.

(8) Tovani, C. (2000). I read it but I don’t get it, p. 55. Stenhouse.

(9) Nielsen, J. (2005). Writing for lower literacy users. Nielsen Norman Group:  https://www.nngroup.com/articles/writing-for-lower-literacy-users/

(10) Giles, D. (1990) “The readability controversy: a technical writing review.” J. Technical Writing and Communication, Vol. 20(2) 131 -1 38.

(11) Characteristics of learning styles.  https://www.llcc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Characteristics-of-Learning-Styles.pdf accessed 4/4/2019.

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