Is Obamacare Readable?

January 2, 2014

Forget everything you think or know about Obamacare.

Does it represent the country’s worst slide into socialism since 1776? Or does it offer a much-needed basket of rainbows and kittens to all Americans? Those questions are the least of our worries.

The real question is: Is it readable?

That’s the question that Carla K. Johnson, a Chicago-based Associated Press medical writer, asked me recently.

Can they read this?

Johnson sent me four samples of text from an online training program. The program was developed for Illinois outreach workers who are helping people sign up for insurance benefits under the new health law.

Many of the outreach workers have a high school diploma or GED and do not have college education. Some have college degrees.
Will they be able to read it? Johnson asked.

No, I said. They won’t.

How do we know?

I used StoryToolz readability analyzer to study four passages from the training program. They weighed in at the 9.2nd, 11.8th, 12th and 14.5th grade levels on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale.

All of the examples are too difficult for outreach workers with high school diplomas and GEDs to read easily. But these passages will also put off workers with college degrees.

More than four out of 10 Americans have basic or below-basic prose skills, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

These folks can sign forms, compare ticket prices for two events and look up shows in a TV guide. But they have trouble finding places on a map, calculating the cost of office supplies from a catalog and comparing viewpoints in two editorials.

The question for writers of this online training program is: Are you smart enough to write for a fifth grader?

How can we improve these passages?

It would be simple to make the passages easier to read by:

  • Adding lists
  • Making words shorter
  • Tightening sentences
  • Writing directly to the reader in the second person
  • Covering people doing things instead of programs and procedures

Here’s what one of the passages might look like after editing for readability:

Before (14.5th grade level): Medicaid eligibility is organized by category or population, each of which has different rules for how much income and resources you can have. For the most part, only citizens and qualified immigrants can qualify. The largest Medicaid categories covering most eligible individuals are children under age 19, parents raising children under age 19, pregnant women, individuals 65 and older, and persons with disabilities.

After (5.1st grade level): Are you eligible for Medicaid? That depends on who you are, how high your income is and how many other resources you have. The largest groups of people who qualify for Medicaid are:

  • Children under 19
  • Parents raising children under 19
  • Pregnant women
  • People 65 and older
  • People with disabilities

How readable is your copy? Are you reaching the readers you hope to reach?

Copyright © 2014  Ann Wylie.  All rights reserved.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.


Michael F. Kelly says:

Great examples here, Ann. Funny how the talk about readability is often not too clear. But this makes it very clear. Thank you! One thing I've noticed is the not-so-subtle bias introduced by measuring readability in terms of 'grade level as if you are dumbing down instead fixing poorly organized and constructed writing. One way to interpret the grade level measure is: 'It takes more education to understand poorly organized and constructed writing.' Readability certainly starts with knowing the meaning of words, but I've read sentences where I know the meaning of each word, but don't understand the meaning of the sentence. That's where grade level doesn't seem to be appropriate. I see you do a lot of training in this area. Have you worked with scientists doing outreach?

Jan. 7, 2014

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