Editing Health Information for a Limited English Audience: Going Beyond Plain Language

Claire Foley, MA | Salon 3

Editor, CF Editing and Proofreading Services

Tracy Torchetti, MA | Salon 3

Assistant Director, Cancer Information, Canadian Cancer Society



High reading levels in health information can be a barrier to accessing services and programs, as well as to acting on health information. Improving health-related information for people with low health literacy and limited English proficiency means using plain language with an awareness of ESL challenges. Bringing down the reading level of health information with easier words and short sentences is only a start. Sure, you’ve identified your audience, put the most important information first, avoided the passive voice and broken up your text with bullets. It seems like you’ve applied all the important plain language principles, but is that enough for a limited-English audience? Not quite.

Our goal is to highlight best practices for health-related written communications for readers with low health literacy and limited English proficiency. Our focus is on editing plain language for ESL readers. Idiomatic language, phrasal verbs, complex verb tenses, punctuation and treatment of numbers can all interfere with readability for those with limited English skills.

This interactive workshop will include discussion and hands-on activities to illustrate common errors and fixes, test attendees’ knowledge, as well as apply what’s been learned by looking at real writing samples. This session is aimed at health information writers, patient educators, instructional designers and communications staff. Attendees, whether writers or editors, should already have some knowledge of plain language. The goal is to teach specific skills to enhance the clarity and readability of text for low-literacy and limited-English readers after doing a traditional plain language edit.

Readers will be more likely to understand and act if communication reflects an awareness of health literacy and the second language perspective. Your audience will have a better chance of navigating the health care system, accessing programs and changing health-related behaviors. We can improve outreach and education efforts in limited-English populations if we better accommodate their linguistic needs.


Learning objectives:

  • After the session, attendees will have a better understanding of an audience with low health literacy and limited English, and they’ll be able to:
    • Apply plain language principles to text
    • Develop information using clearer formatting and typography
    • Identify and edit out difficult language for ESL readers



Bridging cultural gaps and eliminating barriers