When content behaves in an intuitive, logical and predictable way, learners can focus more of their energy and attention on understanding rather than on the mechanics of the user interface. Understanding can also be supported through the use of language that is appropriate for the audience’s reading level, as well as explanations of new or unfamiliar content and features (acronyms and abbreviations, subject-specific jargon and idioms). This will make the content more accessible not only to learners who have cognitive and learning challenges, but also to learners with limited English proficiency. The W3C video entitled Understandable Content examines the importance of plain language and clear design in more detail.
The following techniques will help you make your content understandable:
- Clarify expectation through clear directions and models
- Follow conventions and strive for consistency
- Use plain language
- Identify the language
The techniques are also summarized in a table with the corresponding Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for your reference.
|Technique||Benefits Learners Who Are||Relevant WCAG Guidelines|
|Clarify expectations through clear directions and models||Have learning or cognitive disabilities||3.3.2 Labels and Instructions (A); 1.3.3 Sensory Characteristics (A)|
|Follow conventions and strive for consistency||Have cognitive disabilities||3.2.3 Consistent Navigation (A); 3.2.4 Consistent Identification (A)|
|Use plain language||Have learning disabilities||3.1.3 Unfamiliar Words (AAA); 3.1.4 Abbreviations (AAA); 3.1.5 Reading Level (AAA)|
|Indicate the document language||Blind or have learning disabilities and use text to speech||3.1.1 Language of Page (A); 3.1.2 Language of Parts (AA)|
Access for all people, including people with disabilities, to web environments.View in glossary
Artificial production of human speech, using special software and/or hardware.View in glossary
Clarify expectations through clear directions and models
Before learners are asked to respond, make sure you provide clear directions for what is expected in their answers: length requirements, citation formats, and so on. Whenever possible, link to a rubric (and an exemplar if one is available) to help clarify expectations. Finally, review your directions to make sure they don’t rely on sensory characteristics such as color, shape, position or size. Not all of your readers may be able to perceive these characteristics, and the directions will not make sense to them if that is the case.
An example would be asking the reader to “review the passage to the right before answering the question.” A screen reader would not inform the reader of the location of the passage on the page, and the reader could be confused as to which passage the question references. It would be better to instruct the reader to “review the passage labeled ‘Theory of Thermal Equilibrium’ before answering the question.” The label would provide an additional cue that does not rely on visual perception.
Follow conventions and strive for consistency
Consistency, in both the structure and formatting of the information, can help learners understand how the content works. Conventions can also aid with usability. One example of a convention that is familiar to most learners is the use of underlining to indicate hyperlinked content. Underlining content that is not meant to be a hyperlink (or vice versa, removing the underline from hyperlinks) may prove confusing.
If the content includes recurring features that are unique to it, consider including a “how to use this resource” section at the beginning that explains the meaning of special icons and other unique features. This will enhance usability for all learners.
Use plain language
Use language that is appropriate for the reading level of your audience to make the content easier to understand. Sites such as Hemingway Editor will help you identify the reading level of your content. They will also suggest simpler, shorter sentences. To help those who are new to the topic, either provide a glossary at the end or link to online definitions of unusual words or phrases. This includes jargon and idioms that may be unfamiliar to some readers. Also, expand acronyms and abbreviations the first time they are used.
For additional information on the use of plain language,visit the following sites:
- Top Ten Principles for Plain Language (National Archives)
- Federal Plain Language Guidelines (Plainlanguage.gov)
Identify the language
Identifying the language will help screen readers select the correct voice and pronunciation rules. This is especially important if the content includes more than one language, as listening to the foreign language content with the wrong voice can be confusing to a screen reader user.
- Identify the language for a document or its parts (University of Washington)