Simplifying Educational Digital Content- Writing using Clear Language Guidelines

By Hajer Chalghoumi

Potential solutions for simplifying educational digital content

In the field of accessibility to information, research typically shows a strong bias towards sensory (vision and hearing) and physical impairments, neglecting the cognitive dimension. When developers of digital content, mainly teachers, are faced with the latest statistics showing that 22% of Canadians are unable to read written information while 26% experience difficulty reading, it is clear that working towards a solution is critical. This is even more important in the educational setting where the number of students with learning difficulties and other disabilities having reading difficulties is increasing.

We consider three possible solutions to adapt the text:

Text Circumvention: This solution consists of replacing the text by using alternative formats (such as an audio version). We think that alternative formats should be used with precaution and moderation. In fact, only students who practice reading will improve their skills to become better readers. When students don't read and rely exclusively on alternative formats, they actually lose their reading abilities. We must also keep in mind that in an inclusive approach and to maintain equity, it is important to provide the student with the same content in the same format to the maximum extent possible with regards to the concerned student’ abilities.

Text Supplementation: This solution does not replace the text but helps to make it clear through the use of organizational materials with visual/spatial features, graphic and non-graphic aids, semantic-feature analyses, and concept diagrams. This solution is extensively used in education and is fairly effective in the case of moderate struggling readers.

Text simplification: This solution consists of creating a simpler content or identifying complexity factors within content and modifying them in order to make the text more manageable for students.

Digital content simplification guidelines

Text simplification is a strategy that involves making changes and adding to an existing text in order to make it more clear and comprehensible for all students. In this section, we present an extensive set of guidelines designed to help digital content developers, mainly teachers, understand how to make content accessible to their students. These guidelines are complementary to those dealing with the interface design as presented in many guides such as the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards (Section 508), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the Accessible Digital Office Document (ADOD) Project.

Digital content simplification guidelines are divided into the following categories:



Text organization


Information Density


Links and buttons






Forms and fields

Video / audio / multimedia supplements

Precautions to digital content simplification

When considering the above guidelines, teachers have to select the most appropriate ones taking into account the following directives:

• Simplifying digital content consists of reducing the complexity of the content depending on the severity of the disabilities or learning difficulties.

• Simplifying the text must not infantilize the student. Teachers have to provide the student with a digital content that is appropriate to his/her chronological age while being adequate for his/her mental age, level of knowledge and learning style.

• Teachers should make sure that the simplified content presents achievable challenges for the student. Too simple or too difficult content in regards to the student’s abilities may demotivate him/her.

• Teachers must make sure that they present their student with a simplified digital content whose complexity increases gradually in terms of the student’s increased abilities and level of learning.

For more information

Anderson, S. (2011). How To Design A Website For People With Learning Disabilities.

Arts Access Aotearoa (2009). Print and publication guidelines.

Bastien, J.M.C. and Scapin, D. (1993). Ergonomic Criteria for the Evaluation of Human-Computer interfaces. Institut National de recherche en informatique et en automatique, France.

Bohman, P. (2004a). Cognitive disabilities part 1: We still know too little, and we do even less.

Bohman, P. (2004b). Cognitive disabilities part 2: Conceptualizing Design Considerations.

British Dyslexia Association. (2003). Dyslexia style guide.

Chalghoumi, H. (2011). Balises pour l’intervention avec les technologies auprès des élèves qui ont des incapacités intellectuelles.

Duquette, M., Rocque S. et Langevin, J. (2007). Pour un accès simple à l’information. Montréal : Groupe DÉFI Apprentissage.

E-Government Resource Centre (2009). Creating sites accessible to people with cognitive disabilities - Accessibility Toolkit - Version 3 – 2009.

Elementary and Middle Schools Technical Assistance Center (EMSTAC) (n.d.). Reading Instruction for Students with Disabilities.

Even Grounds Inc. (n.d.). Providing Understandable Text Content for All.

Francik, E. (1999). Telecommunications problems and design strategies for people with cognitive disabilities:Annotated bibliography and research recommendations. World Institute on Disability.

Friedman, M. G. & Bryen, D. N. (2007). Web accessibility design recommendations for people with cognitive disabilities.Technology and Disability, 19, 205–212.

Gélinas Chebat, C., Préfontaine, C., Lecavallier, J. and Chebat, J.C. (1992). Lisibilité  Intelligibilité de documents d'information.

Inclusion Europe (1998). Le Savoir-Simplifier, Directives européennes pour la Production d’Information en langage clair à l’usage des Personnes Handicapées Mentales, Europe : ILSMH Association Européenne.

Ingram, R. (2010). Supporting comprehension for everyone.

Jiwnani, K.(2001). Designing for students with cognitive disabilities.

Juicy Studio (2005). Developing sites for students with Cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties.

Karreman, J., van der Geest, T. M., & Buursink, E. (2007). Accessible website content guidelines for students with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 20, 510-518.

Keates, S., & Varker, P. (2007). Establishing design best practices for students with cognitive and learning difficulties. UAHCI'07 Proceedings of the 4th international conference on Universal access in human computer interaction: coping with diversity, 4554, 706-715.

Kolatch, E. (2000). Designing for students with cognitive disabilities.

Mariger, H. (2006). Cognitive Disabilities and the Web: Where Accessibility and Usability Meet? The National Centre on Disabilities and Access to education.

Mencap (2011). Making your web site accessible for people with a learning disability.

Mirchandani, N. (2003). Web Accessibility for People with Cognitive Disabilities: Universal Design Principles at Work. Research Exchange Newsletter, 8(3).

National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research. (2003). Tips on making printed materials more accessible. Research Exchange Newsletter 8(3), 6.

National Literacy and Health Program (1998). Easy Does It! Plain Language and Clear Verbal Communication.

Nitesh, A. (2011). How to define fonts on website to increase readability.

Pernice, K and Nielsen, J. (1996). Accessible Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Students with Disabilities Design Guidelines for Websites and Intranets Based on Usability Studies with People Using Assistive Technology.

Plain English Power (2009). Plain language: we want it too!

Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) (2011). Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

Pouncey, I. (2008).Web accessibility for cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties.

Rankspirit (n.d.). Écrire pour le web : séduisez vos lecteurs !

Revilla, O. (n.d.). Guideline 3.1: Easy to read, please. One Guide a Day : WCAG 2.0 made easy.

Robertson, G. L., and Hix, D. (2002, April). Making the computer accessible to mentally retarded adults. Communications of the ACM 45(4), 171–183.

Rowland, C. (2004). Cognitive disabilities part 2: Conceptualizing design considerations.

SAP Design Guild Website (2004). Simplifying for Usability.

The Center for Universal Design in Education (2008). How can web pages be made accessible to individuals who have cognitive disabilities?

Van Lancker, L. (2002). Architecture d'un site.

WebAIM (2011).Evaluating Cognitive Web Accessibility with WAVE.

Webcredible (2005). Content & usability: Web writing.