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Accessibility from the Ground Up: Understandable eLearning Uses Plain Language

by Pamela Hogle

November 23, 2016

Spotlight

by Pamela Hogle

November 23, 2016

“Up to half of adults in the developed world struggle with literacy issues, and that includes people who are deaf from birth and use English as a second language, according to Andrea Kenney, a designer of accessible eLearning. Using simpler words and clear writing removes a major barrier to understanding.”

Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners” explores the reasons for creating accessible eLearning content. This Spotlight concludes a four-part series on how to remove different types of barriers that learners might face:

Making content understandable 

Ensuring that content is clear and unambiguous is much more than an accessibility issue of concern to people with disabilities, though it has obvious benefits for learners who are deaf or have autism, dyslexia, or cognitive or other disabilities that affect their ability to access or use written language. Writing in plain English and using additional formats—such as visual media to accompany text, or captions with audio—aids all learners, including those who are English learners or have limited literacy skills. It also ensures that eLearning content is accessible to any busy employee who is trying to learn complex material about an unfamiliar topic.


This is the essence of the “U” of POUR: understandable content. Understandable content is usable content. All the captions and alt text descriptions in the world are useless if learners simply don’t understand the material.

  • Know your audience; if you can be certain that every learner has the same basic knowledge, it’s reasonable to skip basic information. But that’s rarely the case. It is generally wise to include the basics while enabling advanced learners to skip introductory sections.
  • Build in features for people who have difficulty remembering things to make it easy for learners to search for content or review content they have already covered, and allow unlimited access to exercises that offer spaced repetition and skills practice.
  • Include supplemental material and additional resources, such as illustrations, infographics, videos, and animations. This serves multiple groups of learners: Learners who want to explore a topic more deeply benefit from the additional materials. The non-text materials are essential for learners with some cognitive disabilities, low-literacy learners, and learners who have dyslexia.

What is “plain” English?

Writing in plain English provides learners with the information they need in a way that is easy to read and understand:

  • Use simple, everyday words; avoid idioms and cultural references.
  • Avoid jargon, and explain any specialized words or acronyms that you do use.
  • Keep sentences short. Comprehension drops off drastically when sentence length increases beyond about 20 words.
  • Be clear and specific.
  • Avoid redundancy.
  • Use active verbs.
  • Introduce one idea per sentence and one concept per paragraph.
  • Organize content logically. Use HTML5 tags to mark headers, body text, etc.

Non-native English readers, a group that includes people who have been deaf from birth, generally have a smaller vocabulary of more basic words than highly educated native English speakers. According to Wanda Blackett and Andrea Kenney of Deaf Heart Design, an accessible eLearning company in Ontario, Canada, deaf adults tend to have a vocabulary equivalent to that of a hearing child in the fourth grade, and they lack the casual understanding of idioms and cultural references that hearing children absorb from their environment. Kenney adds that up to half of adults in the developed world struggle with literacy issues; using simpler words and clear writing removes a major barrier to understanding. (Editors’ note: While we respect the knowledge of the experts cited in this paragraph, these are generalizations based on their experience, and there are certainly many deaf individuals who are exceptions—many of them notable—to those generalizations. The key point, it seems to us, is that clear writing and appropriate vocabulary helps to ensure that all readers understand your text. Know your users, and write for them. See “Personas Place Developer Focus on Learners’ Needs” for suggestions on ways to ensure that you are meeting the needs of learners.)

Beyond content

Building understandable eLearning requires attention to elements other than content: Navigation, the way exercises work, the structure of required learner interactions, even the “look” of the text must all be easy to understand. Following these design tips helps:

  • Do not use all caps.
  • Use clear fonts. Serif fonts help low-literacy readers recognize the shapes of words more easily than do sans-serif fonts.
  • Keep the design simple and the navigation clear. The eLearning does not have to follow a single linear path, but menus and options should be clear and choices obvious.
  • Remember to use both symbols and colors for navigation controls—say, a blue, right-pointing arrow to move forward and a yellow, left-pointing arrow to move to a previous page.
  • Controls that open menus, flip quiz cards, or access additional materials should be clearly labeled.

If these guidelines sound like common sense or simply good design, that’s because they are. Creating effective, clear content ensures that eLearning is accessible to a broad range of learners, regardless of their ability level, prior knowledge of the subject, or technical savvy—the central goal of universal design.

How accessible is my content?

Well-designed eLearning content likely already has many elements that make it accessible and put it on its way to meeting the R of POUR: robust. This content will have:

  • HTML5 tags for page and section headers, lists, and tables
  • Meaningful hyperlinks
  • ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) attributes for complex elements
  • Alt text for images and video
  • Transcripts and captions for audio elements

While technology is a moving target, designing eLearning content that meets WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 standards helps ensure maximum accessibility for the largest number of learners.

Not sure where your content stands on this spectrum? Several online tools are available to evaluate web pages, mobile content, and other eLearning content. W3C maintains a list of accessibility evaluation resources, and other organizations, including WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility consulting organization based at Utah State University, offer accessibility evaluation tools and checklists for Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 compliance on their websites. WebAIM’s color contrast checker lets you enter two colors in RGB hex format to check the level of contrast.

The WAVE tool (web accessibility evaluation tool) lets you enter a URL; it then analyzes the page and produces a report with warnings, errors, and alerts that tell you what is wrong (and what is done correctly!).

Maintaining an accessibility focus throughout the design and development process results in eLearning content that is usable by a broad variety of learners. User-focused and universal design approaches, along with iterative development models that include audience testing of prototypes or early versions of a product, are compatible with this focus. In larger companies, a group of 10 or 15 employees, including employees with disabilities, can user-test and provide feedback on features of a product. (See “Learning Leaders: Nick Floro Talks About Learning Architects” for a discussion of how this could work.) This might not be feasible for small-scale in-house eLearning projects, and it’s not the only option.

Asking learners how they use a product, watching them work, or having a discussion with employees about their experiences with eLearning can help developers identify needs or issues they should address in the design and development of eLearning content. This information can identify problems that no one on the design team anticipated and lead to better design, greater usability—and improved learning.

Web accessibility resources
Americans with Disabilities Act website
Dos and don’ts on designing for accessibility—Posted by Gov.UK, with links to infographics showing tips for designing for learners with a variety of accessibility needs
Section 508 Standards
WCAG 2.0 Standards

WebAIM—web accessibility consultants with a fabulous website and tons of helpful tools:


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Paul, if you want to write an article dealing with making PDF documents accessible, please send me a proposal, using our Author Guidelines. Whether you intended your comment (now removed) as a pitch, others who see it would have interpreted it as such and would have felt encouraged to post their own pitch. You will do more good by writing an article that we can publish than by making a generic offer of help. I will work with you, but this needs to be done in the right way. It has been some time since we published an article on pdf accessibility, and it is actually time we did so again. Here is a link to the previous article: https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/235/making-pdfs-accessible-new-directions-new-possibilities-part-one-of-two-parts
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