The readability of online training materials

Reducing the high rates of e-learning attrition

Cognitive overload is the chief cause of e-learning failure. Simpler language is a proven remedy.

NOWHERE is plain language more important than in the crucial area of training. The ability of trainees to easily understand training materials can make or break a training course.

This is especially true of e-learning, also known as online learning, distance learning, or computer-aided instruction.

If you do a search on Google for "attrition and e-learning," you will quickly learn that up to 80 percent of those taking online courses do not finish them.

Market-research firm Forrester Research found that more than half of trainees enrolled in its e-learning courses failed to complete them. Learning Tree International in El Segundo, Calif., discovered that only 30% of trainees completed its experimental e-learning course. The study used the best instructors and the latest methods, including networking using e-mail messages and phone calls to keep the trainees involved.

The Learning Tree also discovered that dropout increases with the length of the course. In a multi-part, 25-hour course, 72 percent completed the first three-hour course, but only 52 percent completed two courses, and just 19 percent completed the the full 25 hours. See "E-Learning's Dirty Little Secret," at http://www.traininghott.com/E-learning-Secrets.htm

While most firms use e-learning in conjunction with classroom instruction, the cost of e-learning attrition is enormous. According to Training Magazine's annual report, a hefty 30 percent of the $51.1 billion spent on corporate training in 2005 was spent on e-learning.

Making e-learning work

According to Jim Flood, Director of Learning at Open University in U.K., there are several things to watch out for:

The role of readability

The self-directed learners who do best in e-learning may be in fact the best readers. The chief cause of e-learning dropout is cognitive overload. There are many causes of this, such as unfamiliar technology and language that is too difficult. Make sure that the early lessons especially are jargon-free, easy-to-read, and undemanding.

In one 1973 study, George Klare and Kim Smart of the U. S. Armed Forces Institute applied the Flesch Reading Ease formula to thirty sets of printed correspondence courses used by the military. They found that two of the high school courses and five of the college courses were too difficult for readers of average or below average reading skill.

They then compared their reading analysis to the completion records of the 17 courses that had been in use over two years. They found a high correlation (.87) between the readability score and the probability of students completing the course.

As we reported in this Newsletter, the e-learning experiment at Los Angeles County's Department of Consumer Affairs' phone system showed a 30 percent drop in support calls resulting from easier language.

Matching the readability of the text with the reading skill of users is especially important for unassisted reading where pressure to complete a course of study is low and competition from distractions is high. Like other learning methods,
e-learning requires matching the text with the reading skill of the audience.

Writing for the Right Audience

LiteracyNews.com offers free readability analysis

By Brian Scott

YOU think you are writing a masterpiece, but your readers think otherwise. Your masterpiece is no masterpiece at all; it is a slushpile of difficult words, sentences and phrases. Your readers feel alienated, confused and bored. Your masterpiece suddenly becomes a discarded piece of trash. Had you known the reading level of your masterpiece ahead of time, you could have rewritten your masterpiece for the right audience.

If you want to write clearly and ensure your readers can understand what you write, you need to find out the reading level of your materials as part of your writing process, not after you distribute your materials, according to Brian Konradt, founder of LiteracyNews.com.

Mr. Konradt has created a free Readability Analysis program that analyzes text and gives the reading and grade level of the text. The free program is available at http://literacynews.com/readability/readability_analyses.php

"Knowing the reading level of your materials ahead of time helps you to determine if you are writing for the proper grade level of your readers," according to Konradt. "Our program will help you to determine if you are using too many difficult words, or too many long sentences, or words with too many syllables. Then you can edit, trim and substitute your words, phrases and sentences into something your readers can understand easily."

LiteracyNews.com's Readability Analysis uses three popular readability formulas to determine the reading level of materials; they include Flesch Reading Ease, Fog Scale Level, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. All three programs calculate the number of sentences, words, syllables, and characters and use a mathematical formula to determine a grade level.

Mr. Konradt launched LiteracyNews.com ( http://www.literacynews.com ) in 2006 to empower and inspire literacy leaders and literacy educators to strive harder in helping people improve their literacy skills. Mr. Konradt is also founder of LousyWriter.com ( http://www.lousywriter.com ), a free web resource that teaches writers and non-writers the mechanics of good writing.

—From PRPick.com

Stephen Jay Gould on Simple Langugage

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)

ANYTHING, even the conceptually most complex material, can be written for general audiences without any dumbing down. Of course you have to explain things carefully. This goes back to Galileo, who wrote his great books as dialogues in Italian, not as treatises in Latin. And to Darwin, who wrote The Origin of Species for general readers. I think a lot of people pick up Darwin's book and assume it must be a popular version of some technical monograph, but there is no technical monograph. That's what he wrote.

—Stephen Jay Gould, American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, Ph.D., International Consultant on Adult Literacy

"I finally got around to reading your article. It is very good, scholarly, and complete. Even though readability formulas have been around for years, I think that the biggest current problem is that they are not widely used. Much education of writers, editors, and general population is needed."
—Edward Fry, Ph.D. Reading Consultant.

"I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the level of scholarship in your amazing work, The Principles of Readability.
—Eldon McMurray, Ph.D. Candidate, Utah Valley State College.

Plain Language in the News

Firms with hard-to-read reports have lower earnings:

Judge wins plain-language award:

Time running out for jargon-riddled WTO:

Finns turn Euro jargon into Latin poetry:

Poor reading skills linked to health problems:

Seven steps to readable marketing copy:

Best-selling Healthwise Handbook gets a makeover:

New brochure for youngsters on engineering careers:

How to convert Web-site visitors into customers:

The push for plain talk in Washington State:

Writing readable press releases: