50 tips to communicate with low-literacy audiences


43% of adults in the United States of America can’t identify a specific location on a map nor calculate the total cost of ordering items from a catalog.

According to the US Department of Education, this group has a low literacy level, or in other words, these audiences have problems filling out a questionnaire, interpreting a poster, or understanding simple prescription drug labels.

What is the best way to address audiences with low literacy skills? Is it recommended to develop different communication materials based on the recipient’s level of literacy? Who are these people?

Defining literacy skills

Literacy skills are based in the ability of understanding and using language, images, numbers, and any other means to interact with the context and culture we live in.

Traditionally, literacy skills are grouped into three categories:

Prose literacy: How well you understand and use information found in printed materials. These are the skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from texts.

Document literacy: How well you find and use information in pictures, charts or graphs. These skills are required to use and understand pictures, forms, schedules, and symbols.

Quantitative literacy: How well you can use numbers found in ads, forms, or instructions. These skills help us to employ arithmetic operations and use numbers.

Demystifying low literacy audiences

For starters, let’s be clear on this: Don’t confuse intelligence with education. Maybe your audience needs a different communication approach, but this does not mean that they’re dumb. The challenge is to produce both informative and motivating content and deliver it in the easiest possible way. The ball is in your court.

Low-literacy audiences usually have difficulty in focusing and drawing conclusions from content. Because reading is hard (and boring, remember), low-literacy recipients can’t scan text and they tend to skip over part of the information if they feel tired or not interested.


This target group may lean toward literal interpretation of information and tend to think in concrete rather than abstract terms.

People with lower literacy have an inclination to read one word at a time and often forget what was in the previous paragraph, hence, they may lose the meaning from the broader context.

They often overlook important information if they have to dig deeper into details, so they only read until they think they get the topic.

Keep in mind some other issues that often come along with low literacy skills: stigmatization, lack of empowerment, lack of vision, and/or cognitive abilities change due to age, etc.

Where to start?

Attract their attention to one and only one predominant element. Then, motivate audience to follow your element’s grid by linking one element with another.

Be as descriptive as possible and avoid abstraction. Make sure every single element, sentence, and word can be interpreted in just one way.

If you are using a picture-caption scheme, use a consistent signaling system to help them find the place they left off when navigating the content.

Plan an easy information architecture scheme. The general rule is don’t make them think*.

Yes, you might use readability formulas to test your writing, or write for a sixth-grade level as a common rule, but the best approach is to test with recipients. This is not about the way you put it in words, this is a true communication exercise, involving feelings, perceptions and such.


25 tips for content creation guys

01. Be fundamental. Concentrate on the most important facts.
02. Be understandable. Introduce the context before giving instructions.
03. Be brief. Use sentences with no more than ten words.
04. Be simple. Use ‘eat’ no ‘consume’.
05. Be precise. Omit words that do not add meaning.
06. Be tangible. Avoid abstract language or terms.
07. Be human focused. Address the reader directly.
08. Be conversational. Use ‘you’ when defining the subject.
09. Be positive. Avoid double negative expressions.
10. Be optimistic. Use positive style.
11. Be repetitive. Use the same word consistently instead of synonyms.
12. Be synthetic. The fewer syllables, the better reading comprehension.
13. Be active. Use verbs in active voice.
14. Be limited. Present no more than 6 concepts in one material.
15. Be progressive. Chain elements leading from one concept to another.
16. Be an agitator. Ask the reader to think or take action.
17. Be insistent. Present the key points in the first and last sentences.
18. Be clear. Use explanatory subheadings.
19. Be organized. Use numbers to sequence actions to be taken.
20. Be consistent. Group different sections using the same structure.
21. Be structured. Create content templates to ensure consistency in different materials.
22. Be emphatic. Write summaries at the end of long sections.
23. Be plain. Avoid using humor, ambiguity, sarcasm, or irony.
24. Be phonetical. Use easy to verbalize words.
25. Be obvious. Keep related elements together and clearly linked.

25 tips for visual guys

01. Be hierarchical. Use simple grids and design structure. Use obvious elements.
02. Be simple. Use a single column structure for texts. Limit the reading to up-to-down flow.
03. Be clear. Use a high contrast color scheme.
04. Be legible. Use sans serif instead of serif fonts.
05. Be regular. Limit the use of bold style and if using it, do it consistently.
06. Be roman. Avoid italics in text.
07. Be lefty. Justify only on the left margin of your text. For god’s sake, do it!
08. Be smart. Limit text columns to 50 characters long.
09. Be clean. Avoid shaded backgrounds, photos, or patterns.
10. Be open. Avoid graphs, charts, or symbols that need to be interpreted.
11. Be solid. Use extra white space to separate sections. The fewer chunks, the better.
12. Be descriptive. Use appropriate illustrations.
13. Be close. Place illustrations closed or embedded to related text.
14. Be concrete. Avoid the use of maps or visual abstractions.
15. Be big. Use font size that is large enough.
16. Be white. Use enough white space, 40/50%.
17. Be visual. More visual, less text.
18. Be explicit. Use images that make sense with no caption at all.
19. Be relevant. Use images containing clear understandable content.
20. Be enthusiastic. Use images that you would share.
21. Be obvious. Use self-explanatory elements.
22. Be empathic. Test pictures and images with intended audiences.
23. Be regular. Avoid capital letters.
24. Be consistent. Don’t decorate. Every symbol and image must be content related.

Got it. Now what?

Learn about users with limited literacy skills. The good old-fashioned scheme Plan-Design-Test fits here at its best.
Develop a monitoring system to know if content is understood. Don’t limit yourself to ask if everything is clear. Ensure message is delivered by asking for specific understanding indicators.

So, what about you? Have you experienced some of these methods to produce social change? Have you ever used these techniques with other audiences?


NCES. 2003. A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century.

*If you can’t make something self-evident, you at least need to make it self-explanatory.
Steve Krug. 2000. Don’t make me think.

Readability formulas.