Accessible Language Helps More Students Succeed

-Leah Mason, from the UAS-Sitka Campus, brings us today’s Faculty Learning Corner.

How often do we question the accessibility of our language? Most of us would agree that plain language is important in public communications – we want people to understand what we are trying to tell them, right?

Logo for International Plain Language Federation

We rarely think about whether plain English should apply to higher education. Even less often do we look at whether this idea applies to the content that we are teaching. After all, what we are teaching is sometimes the least general, or least “plain” English language available.

If we take the International Plain Language Federation’s definition (below) and apply it to our roles as instructors, we will see that the goals of plain language is something that we should think about.

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” International Plain Language Federation


What is involved in creating resources for students that are plain language?

Four characteristics of plain language are often used in analyzing text for plain language, most of which are listed under ‘expression’ in the Plain Language Network’s discussion of communicating with greater clarity.

  1. Passive Language – If you have been using Microsoft Word or have installed Grammarly on your computer to make sure your email communication is as professional as possible, you will know that there is a passion for active verbs to make communications more ‘forceful’ or dynamic. Keeping the reader awake seems important and you will be shocked to hear that there are many apps for that.
  2. Long Sentences – another familiar caution for most of us, and the basis of the oxford comma wars. A short sentence rarely requires any type of comma.
  3. Word Complexity Density – Not just the use of complex words (lots of syllables, obscure or very precise meanings), but the number of these in any given sentence. Arguably, this is one of the hardest to address in a higher education environment. Short sentences can help with this, and a glossary can also be useful.
  4. Readability – Yes, but what does ‘readability’ actually mean? One way to think about it is ‘accessibility’ to an audience. Who are we trying to communicate with? Will they be familiar with the words we want to use, or the ways that we will use them (jargon)? Is the language formal (passive) or conversational (active)

A free app to help create writing that is accessible – Hemingway

The first image below is what you will see when you go to

The text you see tells you what the app does. All you need to do is copy and paste your own text into the page. The app gives your writing a readability score and uses a color code to suggest improvements. It is simple and free to use.

Image showing the way the app works

This article is the first example of how the app works:

Hemingway app showing adverbs, passive voice, phrasing, and readability issues

Even though there are lots of sentences highlighted it is still looking good for a 9th grade reading level. It could be a lot better, but I will probably not change the few remaining passive voice or adverb issues. 

To provide another example of how it works, I have put in a piece of text that I’m thinking about using on a public communication about what students need from friends, family and others to support them in their studies.

Another example of how the app works
Hemingway App home page

When I finish adjusting the text, I simply copy and paste it back into my document. Try it for yourself at Even if you decide not to change a single word, it’s a good way to see who is most likely to understand what you are trying to say. 

Thanks to Leah Mason for this contribution to the FLC. We will see you next week!!