In the dynamic landscape of higher education, instructors are tasked with communicating complex and sometimes technical ideas to students with diverse backgrounds and learning needs. But gone are the days of academic elitism when obscure and verbose language signalled intelligence and was the preferred way of communicating; over the past few decades, there has been a seismic shift toward prioritizing accessibility, engagement and better teaching and learning practices in higher education.
Whether instruction is written or verbal, online or in-person, instructors need to communicate clearly and using plain language is an increasingly recommended way to get there. So what is plain language, why is it important, and as an instructor, how can you use it?
Plain language prioritizes simple, clear language in verbal and written communication, aiming to eliminate unnecessary jargon, convoluted sentence structures and ambiguity.
Plain language is reader or listener-centered—meaning it uses language that the audience is likely to be familiar with. Jargon or words that the audience may not know (but need to) are explained clearly.
According to the authoritative voice on the subject, the International Plain Language Federation (n.d.), plain language is used when “the wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
Plain language is not about oversimplifying, minimizing concepts or removing important technical terms, but rather, it is about using language that is:
- Appropriate for the (intended) audience
- Clear and concise
- Likely to be understood by as much of the audience as possible
These elements offer the greatest chance that the audience—in this case students— will:
- Understand the information the first time they hear or read it
- Retain the information
- Be able to use the information (Government of Canada, 2022)
Like universal design for learning principles, plain language benefits all “while ensuring crucial access for some” (Myers & Martin, 2021). One tenet of plain language is to know your audience. You can then tailor the language to suit. In the college context, this audience includes people who are:
- Busy or stressed: Plain language is easier to take in and digest—it requires fewer mental resources—and most college students already have an onerous mental load. Lethbridge College’s 2023 Student Success Survey reveals that on top of coursework and other obligations, the majority of Lethbridge College students plan to work during the academic year—45% plan to work 11–20 hours a week. And students aren’t the only ones who are busy or stressed—instructors can also benefit from easily comprehended plain language.
- English language learners: Language accessibility issues can impact a college student’s performance and motivation. Fall intake numbers at Lethbridge College show an estimated 23% are international students, while just over 21% of students listed a language other than English as their primary language. Using plain language ensures easier access to course content for those who are learning English.
- Literacy learners or those with accessibility needs: For students who struggle with literacy skills, plain language can make all the difference. Trends show that student reading levels may not be as high as you may think—an estimated 48% of adult Canadians have literacy skills that fall below a high school level (ABC, 2023). For students coming from abroad, literacy may be an extra challenge; in the fall of 2023, for example, an estimated 30% of international students starting at Lethbridge College predicted that they needed help with reading skills.
- Student comprehension: One major benefit to adopting plain language principles in instruction is that it will likely increase student comprehension. Whether this means written guidelines for assignments, test questions, or how you communicate in a lecture, the clearer you are, the more likely your students will understand the first time and retain the information.
- Accessibility: Considering the instructional skills dimension of the TEF, which recommends “a learner-centered approach that meets the diverse needs of learners”, using plain language makes your instructional materials more inclusive and accessible to a wider range of students. This helps ensure that barriers related to language, literacy or cognitive differences do not hinder a student’s ability to learn and succeed.
- Student engagement and learning environment: When students can easily understand course content, they are more likely to engage actively in class discussions and assignments. Not only are students more interested, but active engagement fosters a positive learning environment, another dimension of the TEF.
- Save time: Using plain language means it is more likely that students will understand the first time, reducing miscommunications and the need for after-class questions, appointments and misunderstandings (Thanda, 2014).
- Wider applications: Plain language is a valuable skill that extends beyond the classroom (Alford, 2017). Instructors can model clear communication, teaching students to communicate clearly and concisely and helping prepare them for success in future careers where effective communication is often a key requirement.
Use plain language in your writing and speaking directed to students wherever possible. Consider your instructional materials, lectures, testing, assignment guidelines and more.
There are many tips online on how to make your language more “plain”, starting with this post on writing for accessibility.
Some common techniques include using the following:
- Addressing the reader by using second-person pronouns like “you”
- Less-formal language and a conversational, engaging tone
- An active voice in the present tense
- Short sentences and paragraphs, or lists instead of long sentences
- Common, everyday words where possible
- Simple design features such as lists, headers and subheaders, tables, infographics
- Writing for accessibility
- Plain language checklist from the Government of British Columbia, with useful how-to links
- Five steps to plain language from the Center for Plain Language
- PLAIN Canada Resources page
- LinkedIn Learning Course: Writing in Plain Language
- The A to Z of alternative words guide by the Plain English Campaign for using clearer, shorter words and less jargon
ABC Life Literacy Canada (2023). Literacy at a glance. https://abclifeliteracy.ca/literacy-at-a-glance/.
Alford, B. (2015, July 26). Plain language has a clear place in academic writing. Center for Plain Language. https://centerforplainlanguage.org/plain-language-has-a-clear-place-in-academic-writing/
Government of Canada Communications Community Office. (2022, September 15). Plain language, accessibility, and inclusive communications. Communications 101 Boot Camp for Canadian Public Servants. https://www.canada.ca/en/privy-council/services/communications-community-office/communications-101-boot-camp-canadian-public-servants/plain-language-accessibility-inclusive-communications.html
International Plain Language Federation (n.d.). What is plain language? https://www.iplfederation.org/plain-language/
Myers, B., & Martin, T. (2021). Why plain language? Linguistic accessibility in inclusive higher education. Journal of Inclusive Postsecondary Education, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.13021/jipe.2021.2953
Thanda, H. (2014, June 16). Blog: Five tips on plain language for better instructional writing. Teaching and Learning Services: Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/tls/2014/blog-five-tips-plain-language-better-instructional-writing-2/