Writing Inclusive, Accessible Course Content to Bridge Language and Literacy Gaps

by Teagan Carlson

from the Exclusive Team at OpenSesame 

eLearning can be a powerful tool against opportunity inequality by making it easier for people to access the training they need to reach their goals. This statement is only true, however, if learners can understand the content they’re accessing. 

As our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts expand and we try to create equal opportunities for all, we must account for the large segments of our population that are at a disadvantage when taking elearning courses. Most English elearning content is still designed for learners who have the advantage of highly proficient reading and listening skills. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many learners.


The Language and Literacy Gap – Who’s Affected?


Foreign-born, non-native English speakers

People who have immigrated to English speaking countries have various levels of English language proficiency. Some are fluent, perhaps because they emigrated from another English speaking country or had the luxury of studying English before immigrating. Most others range somewhere between English language proficiency and limited English proficiency (LEP). 

Someone with limited English proficiency may struggle to comprehend content written above a first or second-grade reading level. In the U.S., 25.9 million people (9% of the population and about 40% of the foreign-born population) are in this category. In the UK, about 11% of the foreign-born population have limited English proficiency. 

The remaining portion of the immigrant population is English language proficient (half of the foreign-born population in the U.S. and the majority of the foreign-born population in the UK). But proficiency isn’t the same thing as native fluency. Some proficient English speakers can read academic text. Many others can hold a friendly conversation with the neighbors, but they may struggle to understand the sales contract when they purchase a car. And with a population of 20 million in the U.S., the non-native, English proficient population is a segment that just can’t be ignored by the L&D community. 

Translation helps us deliver content to many of these learners, but it isn’t a perfect solution, especially if a publisher relies on AI for translation. The efficacy of AI translation decreases as language complexity increases. Many of the same language conventions that may cause someone without English language fluency to struggle may also confound AI. Without the intervention of a human editor (which adds to the cost of a build, especially when translating into multiple languages), the translation may be riddled with errors that obscure the meaning.


Adults with low literacy

According to literacy rates in the United States, many native speakers also may struggle to comprehend course content. For instance, fifty percent of the US population does not possess the reading proficiency required to navigate complex digital texts, synthesize information, and make anything but basic inferences. Nineteen percent of the population possess only basic reading skills. Of course, most elearning courses don’t require a heavy reading lift, but many video-based courses require intermediate to advanced listening comprehension skills, which is basically “the ability to understand text read aloud” (Hogan, Adlof and Alonzo, 2014). Narration written at a higher reading level may be slightly less problematic for people with low literacy than written text, but it’s still problematic.


Adults with learning differences

There are a variety of learning disabilities that impact reading and listening comprehension. For this reason, the W3C WAI recommends that writers “Use simple language and formatting, as appropriate for the context…Write in short, clear sentences and paragraphs” and “Avoid using unnecessarily complex words and phrases.”

But, as we know, these guidelines are not specific or comprehensive enough for many people with learning differences. The same applies to foreign-born, non-native English speakers, and native-born English speakers with low literacy.

OpenSesame envisions a world where anyone can easily access the training they need to advance their purpose. Yet, these three distinct learner segments do not have the same access to course content that could help them reach their goals. Closed-captioning, audio narration, and downloadable transcripts provide support to these learner segments, but, like translation, the support is only as good as the writing of the script. 

To create elearning course content that is accessible to the learner segments which can benefit from it the most, there must be a greater emphasis on language.

The Exclusive team at OpenSesame uses a comprehensive set of writing guidelines when helping our publishers create inclusive, accessible content. We’ll share some tips below.


Writing Guidelines for Language, Literacy and Learning Diversity


Reading level

When creating content for a general audience (one that includes non-native English speakers, learners with lower literacy, and those with learning differences), write at a 7th- or 8th-grade reading level. If there’s a high probability that LEP learners may take your course and translation is not available, reduce the reading level to 4th- or 5th- grade. Although this reading level is still too high for an LEP learner, it may be enough to aid their comprehension without seeming too simplistic to proficient readers.

Note: the Flesch-Kincaid reading level of this article is between 9th and 10th grade. It’s higher than the recommended reading level because my audience has a high level of reading proficiency.



Use high-frequency vocabulary words (words most commonly found in conversational English), avoid academic language, and use jargon sparingly. If you can’t avoid using jargon or academic vocabulary, then clearly and immediately define the jargon so that your reader isn’t forced to unpack its meaning. 



Even though varying sentence length makes our content more engaging, it also makes it more difficult to understand when read or heard. To improve comprehension, rely on simple and compound sentence structures. Avoid complex sentences as they take quite a bit more unpacking. And forget compound-complex sentences altogether; figuring out the dependent clause-independent clause relationship with two independent clauses takes a more advanced level of listening and reading proficiency. 



Not surprisingly, the conversational proficiency of a language learner is higher than their academic language proficiency. For instance, they may be able to hold a basic conversation in English, but reading the newspaper may be challenging or impossible. This is particularly true for the many people who are learning English in a non-academic setting, such as through social interactions or social media. For these learners, reading and listening comprehension increases with content written using a friendly, conversational tone in contrast to one that is overly formal and academic.



The subject of a sentence is obscured by passive voice, making it difficult for an English learner or translator to unpack the meaning. Use active voice as much as possible; when you can’t, compensate by simplifying your syntax.


Verb tense

Anyone who has learned another language understands the challenge of mastering verb tense. Learning English is no different. Since the present, progressive and past tenses are the most commonly used tenses in conversational English, it makes sense to rely on them in our writing. The perfect tenses may be especially difficult for English language learners, as is shifting tense within a sentence or chunk of text.  



We sometimes use slang to connect with our audience or when writing dialogue. However, these familiar words and expressions can lead to gaps in comprehension for English language learners and non-native English speakers. Some may even stump AI.   

Here are some words and expressions that we often read, but that should be avoided:

– Word-combinations like gonna, gimme, and wanna

– Popular slang terms like dump (to break-up), ghost (to avoid), or cool/ hip (in-fashion)

– Popular expressions like “see ya” and “hang out”

– Acronyms like ASAP and RSVP


Figurative language

Figurative language – descriptive language that employs devices like similes, metaphors, and oxymorons – can be an obstacle to comprehension for language learners, people who are foreign-born (even those who are fluent in English), and AI. 

The problem with figurative language is that, well, it’s not literal. When we employ figurative language in our writing, we assume that our readers 

1. are familiar with the phrase or expression or

2. can use their experiences or knowledge to figure it out easily.

Some figurative language is harder to unpack than others. Similes, for example, often use clear comparisons that require a lower level of critical thinking to unpack than metaphors. In the example below, the simile and metaphor have identical meaning. The simile is far easier to unpack, however, because the adverb, “easy”, offers a straightforward hint to the meaning of  “pie.” The metaphor, on the other hand, contains no hints. A learner would need to be familiar with the phrase to understand its meaning.

Simile It’s as easy as pie. 
Metaphor It’s a piece of cake.



Idioms are particularly difficult for language learners because they are both figurative and colloquial. They’ve got all the difficulty of not meaning what they actually say, plus they employ words or expressions that are so specific to a particular culture or region that they are confounding to foreign-born learners regardless of language proficiency. In fact, they may even be confusing to native-born learners from different locals. Consider the following regional idioms:

“That thing is all catawampus.”

“Rode hard and put up wet.”

“That dog won’t hunt.”

Without background knowledge, these expressions are like a foreign language to native English speakers. 

Idioms must also be avoided when writing for translation as AI lacks the ability to interpret the figurative meaning of the idiom and will create a direct literal translation of the text.

These are just a few ways you can ensure that your course scripts are written for an audience with low to moderate language fluency and literacy. For additional strategies and for tips on verbally communicating with an audience that speaks English proficiently, but not natively, check out the course, “Communication Across Cultures: Clarity” by Management Pocketbooks, available exclusively at OpenSesame.