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Clear writing critical

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By Natalie AmesNonprofits produce a wide range of education and information materials, but often the literacy level of their print materials is higher than that of their main audiences.

Most human-service agency clients, for example, are poor and have limited education.

These agencies use a variety of print materials to provide important information such as agency policies, regulations and eligibility criteria, as well as applications for services, and education about topics such as AIDS-prevention, sexual assault prevention and parenting skills.

There is little research on print materials designed for human-service agency clients although there is much data on literacy levels:

* 20 percent of American adults age 25 and older have not graduated from high school.

* The average American adult reads at an 8th-to-9th grade level.

* One in five adults reads at 5th-grade level and below.

* Among Americans age 65 and older, and inner city minorities, nearly two in five read below 5th-grade level.

Research on readability has primarily focused on health education and health promotion materials.

Most public education materials are written at a reading level of 10th-grade or higher, for example, and use terms, concepts and illustrations unfamiliar or incomprehensible to readers with limited literacy skills.

Natalie Ames:Assistant professor,
Department of social work,
Affiliate faculty member,
Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University


Free presentation

Roundtable discussion on improving readability of written materials.

Sept. 28
8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Institute for Nonprofits
219 Oberlin Road, Raleigh.

Please send email by Sept. 7 to register. Space limited.

Many nonprofits would benefit from improving the readability of their informational and educational materials.Writing for readability is a skill that takes time to develop because readability encompasses much more than reading level.

You must, for example, use short words and short sentences.

You also must understand the impact of format, font style and size, and of case, margins and active voice, and be able to limit content to information the target audience needs to know.

Improving readability increases the likelihood you will get your message across to your target audience, and it is cost effective.

If clients cannot read or understand your organization’s materials, you have wasted the money it cost to produce them.


Natalie Ames is an assistant professor in the department of social work and an affiliated faculty member at the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University.

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