(Re)considering Literacy Preferences

Picture Impact
Good Thinking
Published in
8 min readJul 4, 2022


Source: Adobe Stock

In the world of designing for users, considering the level of text to use and the balance of text to image is critical for ensuring that what is designed actually communicates (and, ultimately, gets put into use). When the issue is life and death, this matters. A lot. Consider these pieces on choking (if you’re looking for a rabbit hole, do an image search on “choking posters” and prepare to be amazed by the variety). Who are they meant for and in what scenarios?

What often gets tricky is when people develop and design communication for other people — which other than the sticky notes you might put up around your house, is pretty much all the time, right? When designing for other people, taking their preferences for communication into account is really important. Just like when your friend comes over for a meal you don’t serve them food they don’t like, when you are designing for other people getting to know what they like and how they relate to written information is part of doing your job well. We’ll save the fun of developing images and visual design for another article (or many as these are a world unto themselves!). Here we want to talk mostly about reading preferences, and primarily about reading preference in the context of our work which often involves making technical content available to a number of different types of users within international development program delivery.

Until very recently, we have talked about our work as designing for users with low literacy. We even made a checklist for low literacy design. However, we’ve been evolving our understanding, in part as we notice how our clients and others relate to our work toward simplifying, clarifying, and making materials more accessible.

This term, “low literacy,” is a poor shorthand. It describes one aspect of a group for whom we often design materials — rural households, and the community-based workers (volunteers, don’t get me started on the ethics of that, a discussion for another time…) who often are charged with delivering programs — namely, how they interact with written text. Low literacy is a slight improvement over the term “illiterate,” as it gets away from the idea that literacy is yet another binary, a skill someone either does or does not have, and focuses on the person and their abilities. But “low literacy” and the related idea of “literacy levels” (which may appear as grade level equivalents, or functional literacy levels) are still problematic framing for instructional or material design. Here are just a few of the many issues with these terms:

  • They treat literacy as a clear process that can ostensibly be monitored and managed. Surely with education, people can just “level up?” (No surprise, it’s more complicated than your average video game).
  • These levels are nearly always calibrated in white, Western contexts. A “third-grade reading level” is not a helpful descriptor when third grade looks very different around the world, when not everyone starts at kindergarten and goes straight through to third grade, and when students are treated quite differently in third grade based on their race, gender, class, abilities, etc.
  • Judging “functional” literacy by how well an individual can fit into and function in a neoliberal, capitalist job market is similarly steeped in oppression.
  • Literacy levels without understanding the framework of accessibility are not only meaningless but can cause harm. If we don’t attend to the emotions, the content and utility are not accessible and our efforts to convey meaning (and ultimately to change behavior) are not only lost but may be actively causing harm!

This of course is a non-exhaustive list, but another of the most injurious aspects is that “level” language is rooted in deficit and hierarchical thinking. It implies that people who do not interact fluently with the frequently worshiped written word are somehow more lacking or more demanding of accommodation than others.

In fact, all of us have preferences for reading which vary widely depending on our rest, stress level, focus, interest, and age, among other factors. Our reading preferences often have less to say about our abilities than they do about context, neurology, and interest.

So, what instead?

What we continue to come back to is the importance of reorienting and centering on the people who will use what we are designing: learners, facilitators, volunteers, community workers, teens, nursing mothers, and smallholder farmers. Focusing on specific people gives us more dimension.

Get specific about who you are designing for and what their context is, including how they prefer to interact with written (printed, static) information.

Effective design and clear writing are not just about limiting word count and eliminating jargon (sure, those things help), it is about meeting people where they are — meeting their needs. This is the same if you are writing for a highly academic, well-educated urban audience, or a rural population with little access to formal education or training. We all need and deserve accessible materials.

Focus on increasing access to materials, ideas, and messages. Instead of designing for literacy level, ask, “who will want and be able to access these materials?” and “what will they want and be able to do with them?” These questions will require reflection on how different people will interact with what you are creating, their language, preferences, and level of comfort and desire for written information.

In a practical sense, we do end up needing to narrow down materials to the preferences and context of the people who will be using them. Before, we tried co-opting the terminology of reading levels and the underlying concepts they aimed to quantify because of its utility to guide writing and the creation of effective communication. Now, we’re trying something new.

What we have come up with to help streamline this conversation and planning is a list of reading preferences, honing in on what different people will like and appreciate about written materials.

When interacting with printed (written, static) information…

…I prefer to read in pictures

Even those who would be considered “illiterate” do a lot of decoding in their daily lives. These are individuals who do not understand written words or letters but can ascribe meaning to realistic and familiar-looking images and scenes (this is different from icons, which require a different type of literacy).

…I prefer to read short, simple sentences, one at a time.

Individuals who can read, but do not interact with text on a regular basis. They are able to fill out forms when needed, read words on signs, notice a headline in a newspaper or respond to a short text message. Reading anything longer than a few sentences takes significant effort and is readily tiring.

…I prefer to read short paragraphs with one clear main point.

Individuals who interact with text more regularly; for example, reading product labels or small portions of a newspaper or reading while scrolling through social media or text messages.

…I prefer to read longer paragraphs with clear language and the main idea.

Individuals are likely to enjoy reading a newspaper or a novel. They interact with text daily and likely use it as social interaction to talk about what they are reading with peers. These individuals appreciate clear writing that helps them identify main ideas and get through text quickly.

…I prefer to read formal written work on a particular topic where I learn new vocabulary and complex ideas.

Individuals are likely to pursue and enjoy reading information related to specific advanced academic topics. They may pursue post-high school education to seek this interest as well as incorporate more complex vocabulary into their everyday life. They will understand how different ideas relate to each other and to the larger whole and will seek out new information.

…I prefer to read advanced writing where I am interacting with highly complex ideas and vocabulary and likely using this skill in my professional life.

Individuals are taking in information that is highly complex and has a steep learning curve. They may use reading at this level within their professional life (medical research articles, for example) and are able to quickly ingest these complex ideas to inform their work. They are likely to enjoy reading and find it the main method of taking in information.

What does this look like in practice?

Let’s look at one example promoting the idea of eating a diverse diet.

Thinking of our audiences’ preferences helps us to create useful materials. Reading grade-level calculators, such as Flesch-Kincaid and others, can still be helpful as they show us how far off we are in developing appropriate materials due to our own biases and preferences. We continue to see materials ostensibly developed for readers who prefer short, simple sentences that are at a ninth-grade level, or even higher! These tools show us how far we have to go as an industry in understanding how to design accessible, relevant, and readable materials. Awareness that written/printed materials — while remaining one of the best working memory tools — are just one format of many to convey meaning, also encourages us to make use of many different ways of communicating with one another.

Ultimately, the focus on literacy levels puts the emphasis on the materials, rather than on the learner. Just because someone can read, says nothing of their motivation to do so around any particular subject or material. If instead, we focus on the learners’ preferences, then we can also start to think about what encourages our audience to want to read, want to learn, want to understand, and apply something new. These, we believe, are much more pertinent questions than how well someone can read.

What do you think? What or who have we missed? How do you design and aim materials in regards to literacy? How do you talk about it? We welcome the discussion; we are coming to this conversation humbly prepared to keep learning.

This article was written by Jennifer Compton in collaboration with Katrina Mitchell.

Jennifer Compton, Evaluator, Experiential Education Designer, Writer, lover of learning who delights in finding “aha” moments, and senior associate at Picture Impact.

Katrina Mitchell, Designer, Urban Planner, Strategist, Maker, relentless seeker of beauty, and co-founder of Picture Impact.



Picture Impact
Good Thinking

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