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Canadian Public Health Association

Plain language service

A plain language approach ensures that the health information you provide to patients, clients and consumers is easy to read, easy to understand and easy to act on.

CPHA defines health literacy as "the ability to access, understand and act on information for health."

When someone is ill, anxious or in pain, being able to access and understand health information may be difficult, even if the person's literacy skills are generally high.

Plain language offers the most benefit to the 49% of Canadian adults with low literacy skills. If your audience is "the public," plain language writing will help you get your message to this segment of the population.

Low literacy in Canada

In 2013, results of an international literacy survey taken by 27,000 Canadians (in 2012) showed that 49% had low literacy skills.

Literacy Level Description of Skill Level % of adults*
1 Poor readers 17%
2 Narrow readers 32%
3 Adequate skills 38%
4 & 5 Highest skills 14%

*Numbers total 101% due to rounding

Adults in Levels 1 and 2 have limited scope for understanding health information.

The combination of low literacy and a lack of health literacy can be dangerous--and even deadly. By providing clear, reliable information to the public, health professionals and governments are helping citizens and patients to:

  • manage their health
  • understand treatment protocols
  • safeguard their children's health and
  • avoid catastrophe (by taking the wrong prescription dose, for example).

Isn't plain language about "dumbing down" a text?

No, the goal of plain language is to organize and present information in a way that works for your intended audience.

If your audience consists of medical professionals, it's okay to include terminology they will understand. By doing so, you show that you respect your audience's knowledge, level of education and literacy skills.

On the other hand, if your audience is the public--and if you are aware of Canada's 2013 literacy statistics--you will aim to create health information at a Grade 8 to 10 level. Perhaps you will opt for visual aids or an audio-visual approach to health information.

Bear in mind that people with higher literacy skills also gain from a plain writing approach. They will get the basic information they need and then seek more detail if they wish.

Your document is in plain language when your target audience understands it.

Contact us

For plain language support and services, please contact Plainly Speaking by email or by phone at (613) 608-7668. CPHA has authorized Plainly Speaking to provide plain language writing, editing, and training services directly to you.