Say it plainly.
Last weekend, I had the chance to attend the Plain Language Association International 2013 Conference in Vancouver, BC. From October 10–13, this inspiring, informative conference brought together over 500 people from many different fields who are all interested in making communication as clear as can be. The main message was that whether you’re a teacher, a literacy professional, a government worker, or a lawyer, you should try to speak and write in a way that is clear and, well, plain!
What Is Plain Language?
Plain language involves keeping your audience in mind at all times, and the goal is to write to be understood by all your readers. There are guidelines you can follow, such as using the pronoun “you” and avoiding jargon and the passive voice, but the success of any document is measured by how well your readers understand it. As English teachers, we are all already familiar with the concept of plain language. We continually strive to speak and write in a way that our English learners will understand. For more information about what plain language is and what the conference was all about, check out the first article on the plain2013.org website and Say It Plainly in BCBusiness online magazine.
While the conference covered a wide variety of topics like the future of plain language (it’s becoming more and more popular all over the world) and ethics in plain language (such as the right to understand all forms and documents), I want to focus on some sessions that relate directly to English teaching.
Kate Harrison Whiteside, one of the conference cofounders, led a panel presentation called Successfully Integrating Plain Language. During the presentation, she mentioned that user-testing was key to ensure understanding. This relates directly to us teachers because we need to carefully monitor understanding when using new materials in class. I find the best way to do this is by circulating as students are working (whether it’s individually, in pairs, or in groups). Often students won’t volunteer that they are confused by the material. But when you circulate, you can quickly assess who is getting it and who isn’t, and offer help to those who need it at that time or after class.
Terri Peters, a plain language trainer, also emphasized that talking to a lot of people for feedback is invaluable. As a teacher, I agree. At my old school, we did student evaluations once a month that included a written rating and a counseling session. But sometimes I found it beneficial to talk to students throughout the semester, especially after the first week of class, to make sure everyone was keeping up and not feeling frustrated with the material.
Diana Twiss, of Decoda Literacy Solutions, talked about what makes people effective readers and how plain language can model this. Teachers can use her findings in their classrooms to help students understand the reading portion of a lesson more clearly. First, teachers should always tell students what they will learn in the reading (i.e., the purpose) before they read. Second, providing some background information about the reading topic before students read helps all levels of learners get more out of the reading. Third, using headings helps students piece the information together more easily. If the reading you’re doing with your class doesn’t have headings, you could always make a photocopy and write them in yourself before presenting the reading to students. Finally, summarizing the key points after the reading will help students put it all together in their minds. For other reading tips, check out 3 Ways to Make Reading More Interactive.
Linda Comerford, in her session Creating Clarity with Grammar, presented her audience with some interesting statistics. Did you know that English has over 600,000 words? On average, that’s four times more than other languages. She often tells this to her students when they are feeling discouraged in order to remind them that they’re not alone in thinking English is hard. She also mentioned that 16–18 is the number of words that your brain can hold onto when forming a sentence. So, for teachers, it’s important to speak and write in sentences that don’t exceed this amount, and we should encourage our students to do the same.
For more information about the conference, check out their website: www.plain2013.org.