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Health Literacy: Plain language

Resources for understanding health literacy best practices.

What is "Plain Language"?

Plain language is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.  Written material is in plain language if your audience can:

  1. Find what they need
  2. Understand what they find 
  3. Use what they find to meet their needs


This list of medical words decoded into plain language was developed by the Medical Library Association to help patients understand their healthcare provider. Healthcare professionals can use it to help translate medical terminology into simple language in order to improve patient communication.

Plain language principles

Plain Language principles include:

Using simple, easy-to-understand words and numbers

  • Include “you” and other pronouns
  • Define medical and insurance terminology

Keeping it short by sticking to 1-3 ideas

  • Remove words you don’t need
  • Use short sentences
  • Have singular, clear statements about each concept

Identify who is doing what and use an active voice

  • Keep the subject up front by saying the most important points first
  • Write and speak in a friendly tone

Plain Language Examples:

  • Focus Your Communication Know your audience and purpose before you begin. Always open your communication with the most important messages
  • Be Concise Too much information may overwhelm or intimidate patient and caregivers. Try to limit each communication to three key messages. This helps everyone to focus on the details that matter most
  • Speak/Write at a Grade 6 Level Many people with low health literacy won’t clearly understand information shared at a higher level. Sharing information at a Grade 6 level allows you to communicate clearly with the greatest number of advisors
  • Avoid Using Jargon Choose words and numbers your audience knows. Words with fewer syllables are easier for people with low health literacy to understand. Avoid health system acronyms. If you must use acronyms, have a conversation with patients and families about what they mean and when you plan to use them (Health Quality Ontario; Kimble, 2002)
  • Use Bullet Points This makes documents easier to read and reference and highlights key facts or instructions that need to be followed. Providing information in bullets instead of paragraphs also helps to break up text and add white space, which is a best practice in plain language communication
  • Use Images Evidence shows that health info-graphics and other images are a great way to help patient and caregiver advisors visualize and understand key information



“Plain Language means documents written and formatted such that they are easy to read, understand and utilize.” There are no universally accepted rules and or guidelines for plain language.

 (Plain Language Action and Information Network, n.d.)

Plain Language resources

MCW Libraries
8701 Watertown Plank Road
Milwaukee, WI 53226
(414) 955-8300

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