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2-for-1 Week: Emily Lauer and Courtney Dutra on Using Plain Language in Evaluation

Hello, we are Emily Lauer and Courtney Dutra from the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Developmental Disability Evaluation and Research (CDDER). As part of our work, we often evaluate programs and projects that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In this post, we focus on “Plain Language” as a tool for increasing readability and usability.

Why Plain Language? Consider the following real-world examples of language taken from legal documents:

A preponderance of evidence

   Failure of recollection is common

   Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon


Plain Language (also known as Plain Enlgish) is the art of writing simply. It is communication your audience can understand the first time they read it. Plain Language reduces confusion. It is clear, organized, and written for the appropriate audience.

We can rewrite the above examples using Plain Language:

   A preponderance of evidence = More likely than not

   Failure of recollection is common = People often forget

   Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon = People make mistakes in what they remember

Isn’t that better?

Plain English is especially helpful for people who: have intellectual and developmental disabilities; don’t speak English as their first language, and have low literacy or education levels. However, most people appreciate Plain English! We use it in our work to write simple and clear evaluation questions. We also use Plain English when writing reports for any of the audiences mentioned above. Plain English may also be useful in scientific writing – especially in communicating methods and results to a wide audience – whether a manuscript or a grant application.

Hot Tips:

Several tools will help you to decide if your language is too complicated:

  • Microsoft Word has a readability checker that will give you a Flesch-Kincaid grade level. A fourth to sixth grade level can be easily understood by most people.
  • Online-utility.org will analyze your text for free and provide readability statistics and suggestions for improving sentences.

How to write in Plain English?

  • Try using an active voice, the “you” pronoun, short sentences, and everyday words.
  • Hint: the phrase ‘for which’ often signals a complicated sentence that can be revised.
  • A ‘Top Ten’ list of tips is here.

Rad Resources:

Lots of resources exist online for explaining the importance of Plain English (it’s a federal agency requirement) and for teaching writing in Plain English:

We’re celebrating 2-for-1 Week here at aea365. With tremendous interest in the blog lately, we’ve had many authors eager to share their evaluation wisdom, so for one special week, readers will be treated to two blog posts per day! Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.



1 thought on “2-for-1 Week: Emily Lauer and Courtney Dutra on Using Plain Language in Evaluation”

  1. Chelsea Suresh-Mills

    Hello Emily Lauer & Courtney Dutra,

    I really enjoyed your blog posting. This article caught my attention because, as a primary school teacher in a diverse school environment, I am always in search of strategies to ensure the student evaluation information I share is accessible for all parents/guardians and, when appropriate, students. The school community I work in has a high proportion of English Language Learner students and families, as well as some parents/guardians with low literacy levels. Early in my career I was often guilty of communicating student evaluation information in a manner that I felt was professional and academic, but in fact was inaccessible for some students, parents and guardians. In doing so, I missed the point of tools like report cards, because I was not fulfilling their primary function of communicating student progress clearly to students and their families. While I have improved in this area over the course of my teaching career, at times I still struggle to communicate complex educational and evaluation information in plain language. That is why I was so thrilled to come upon your excellent article! The Microsoft Word Readability checker and Online-Utility.org are both new resources to me, and I look forward to using them to enhance my student and parent/guardian communication. I also appreciate your tip to write in an active voice as a strategy for ensuring plain language. I intend to keep these tools and suggestions in mind in all of my future student assessment and evaluation communication.

    Thanks for sharing your insights on this important topic!


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