6.3 Readability

As an institution dedicated to human rights, the Museum strives to make texts accessible and understandable to a wide range of audiences. Among our audiences are the 48% of adult Canadians with low literacy skills, people whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, and people with varying cognitive abilities.

In keeping with these objectives, texts are written in plain language with a target reading level not exceeding Grade 9.

Plain Language

The CMHR follows the guidelines outlined by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a community of federal employees dedicated to the concept that citizens deserve clear communications from government. The use of plain language in texts allows:

  • visitors to find what they need
  • visitors to understand what they find
  • visitors to use what they find to meet their needs

To achieve the three goals stated above, the CMHR uses the following best practices for exhibit text writing:

  • Write as if the text were a stand-alone. Do not assume that visitors have read the previous text.
  • Relate to what visitors see. Usually visitors read the text after looking at the item on display. Anticipate and answer questions about what is on display and point out details they may not have noticed.
  • Be clear by using common, simple words that can be understood by people who are reading in English or French as a second language. Avoid jargon.
  • Be concise. Research shows that shorter texts are read more frequently than longer texts and are recalled better.
  • Get to the point. Convey as quickly as possible the “who, what, when, where and why” information that visitors are looking for.
  • Use the active voice and avoid the passive voice.
  • Write in visually appealing chunks. Divide text into short paragraphs with varied sentence structure and use bulleted lists.

The Museum follows the plain-language writing techniques outlined in Chapter 13 of The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing (Canada: Public Works and Government Services, Translation Bureau). Full details of these guidelines are available online at http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tcdnstyl-chap?lang=eng&lettr=chapsect13&info0=13.

Reading Level

To avoid subjective interpretations of reading level, the Museum uses the Flesch-Kinkaid reading-level tool to assess readability in English, aiming for Grade 9 or lower.

This reading level does not preclude presenting complicated or difficult topics, but it does mean that text has to be written to make complex ideas accessible to visitors. Key features of written communication for lower reading levels are:

  • short words
  • short sentences with straightforward sentence structures
  • common and plain language, free of jargon
  • specialized terminology defined using familiar language
  • clear and concise style

Exceptions to the reading-level targets can be made on occasion. However, there must be compelling reasons to exceed the standards, given that higher reading levels exclude a large percentage of the population.