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Tips: How to write low-literacy financial education materials

A few months ago, we released a new version of our Money Habitudes cards. This version is written with low-literacy financial education audiences in mind. All of the money personality statements were written at a 5th-grade reading level or below. This enables them to be used with high-literacy audiences as well as low-literacy audiences. Low literacy users might include prisoner reentry groups, job readiness programs, and a variety of asset-building organizations that do financial education. In reexamining our materials, here are some tips for how to write low-literacy financial education materials:

  1. Having quantitative metrics like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is very helpful. (We set up our way to measure in Excel, using that formula.) It’s very hard to just eye a sentence and guess what the reading level is. The discipline of knowing something was too high a reading level – even if it was a function of a single syllable – kept us from drifting away from the low-literacy goal of fifth grade that we set.
  2. Even sentences that look “easy to read” can score very poorly on a reading level scale. The higher the reading level of the person writing the materials, the harder it can be to simplify statements and understand the needs of low-level readers.
  3. low-literacy reading levelSimply making two sentences out of one longer sentence often leads to a dramatic improvement in readability.
  4. At least with our 5th-grade goal, it was very difficult to use 3-syllable words. Unfortunately, there are some words that we would have liked to have used more, but we had to be very judicious in their use.
    1. This includes words like financial, insurance, investments, bargaining, negotiation, etc.
    2. Even words used in the context of financial management needed simpler alternatives, such as opportunities, unexpected, emergency, advantage, responsibility, sacrifice, and education.
  5. Simple present-tense declarative statements are easier than other tenses. Instead of saying, “I like to go shopping,” it’s easier to say, “I like to shop.” Similarly, it can be helpful to flip nouns, verbs, and adjectives into their other forms. So where one might say, “I am very knowledgeable about investing,” it could read like, “I know a lot about how to invest.” That’s a difference between 12th grade and 2nd grade.
  6. Sometimes it’s beneficial to let the reader assume what you’re talking about. For example, we might replace a statement like, “I will save my money to…” with one that says, “I will save to…” and let the reader assume we’re talking about “my money.”
  7. In some cases, we accepted wording that was more colloquial and less proper. For example, to say you “get” something could replace “understand” and save two syllables – and seven characters.
  8. Similarly, we might accept a statement that reads a little awkwardly versus one that reads flawlessly but needs a lot of words or more complicated words. In some cases, this might use a fragment or start a sentence with “That” or “This” to allow breaking one long thought into two simple ones.
  9. Using lists can save words and syllables and make for easier reading.
  10. A thesaurus is helpful, not for finding more colorful words, but for finding more basic ways to think of how to say something.