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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Easy-to-Read - An important part of reading promotion and in the fight against illiteracy

Bror Tronbacke,
Easy-to-Read Foundation, Sweden


Approximately 20 per cent of the earthīs population are still illiterate due to insufficient educational resources. At the same time there are many people who, as a result of disabilities or for other reasons, find difficulty in reading and are therefore incapable of reading ordinary newspapers and books.Reading promotion and the fight against illiteracy has been given high priority by the United Nations and UNESCO, its educational and cultural organisation. IFLA has also strongly emphasised the importance of measures to promote reading. The publication of easy-to-read material - books, newspapers and other information - should be in a position to play an important part in these efforts.This lecture describes what is meant by the concept "easy-to-read", and examples from what has already been published are shown. Opportunities are also suggested for cooperation between countries.


Access to information and literature - a democratic right

Being able to partake of information, literature, etc., is normally considered a fundamental democratic right. It is necessary to be well-informed in order to participate in social life, in discussions at work and in order to be able to influence oneīs own situation. Reading newspapers and books gives access to other peopleīs thoughts and ideas.In recent years the United Nations, UNESCO and IFLA have drawn particular attention to the need to stimulate reading and have become involved in the struggle against illiteracy. The UN pronounced 1990 the year of literacy and many contributions have been made during this decade.At its twenty-fifth session in 1989 the General Conference of UNESCO adopted a plan of action for the eradication of illiteracy by the year 2000. UNESCO regards the strategy in this area as its priority of priorities.In The Public Library Manifesto, for instance, UNESCO has strongly emphasised the influence of information and literature on human development and social welfare. In 1993 UNESCO and IFLA published Guidelines for Public Libraries Promoting Literacy. IFLA is in the process of drawing up another Core Programme on the promotion of literacy and reading.

How does the situation look in the world with regard to literacy?"Literacy" or rather "functional literacy" is generally understood as literacy sufficient to read and to write a short account of oneīs own life, read short notices and brief articles in newspapers, etc.A rule of thumb is that four years of basic schooling are required in order to achieve sufficiently good literacy to manage in daily life.The United Nations have given increased attention to the promotion of literacy and basic education as both a fundamental human right and a necessary condition for development.A report from the United Nations about progress made and problems encountered in the struggle against illiteracy tells about the situation today. (UN, General Assembly Economic and Social Council, A/50/181, E/1995/65):The situation in the world today with regard to illiteracy can be seen from the following table. The information is based on UNESCOīs statistics and "literacy" here is taken to be the proportion of people who have received such a degree of education that they can be supposed to be able to read satisfactorily. (Table)

Estimated percentages of adult literates aged 15 years and over
1980 1990 1995 2000
World 69.5 75.3 77.4 79.4
Developed Countries 96.6 98.2 98.7 98.9
Least Developed Countries 36.5 44.8 48.8 52.7
Source: UNESCO Division of Statistics

The Table states the percentage of literates in the world, in the developed countries and in the least developed countries for the years 1980, 1990, 1995 and the expected figure for the year 2000. It can be seen that literacy has increased in all parts of the world, particularly in the least developed countries. However, still more than 20 per cent of the adult population in the world are illite rate, which in 1995 corresponded to approximately 885 million people. More than three in five illiterates are women.

Reading problems caused by handicap

Although considerable progress has been made in the efforts towards literacy we can still see that 20 per cent of the worldīs population, primarily as a result of insufficient education, are still unable to read. However, when we speak of functional illiteracy we must not forget all those who have problems in reading due to a handicap or other factors. This applies, for instance, to people suffering from dyslexia, retarded development, autism or aphasia. It also applies to people deaf from childhood, for instance, who often experience difficulty in reading and understanding written text. People with social problems and the mentally ill may also often have difficulty in reading.Immigrants with a different native tongue do not have reading problems due to a linguistic handicap, but during the first years in a new country when they are learning the new language they are at a linguistic disadvantage.Thus, if people with a reading handicap are also included, quite a large proportion of the population may be termed functional illiterates even in the most developed countries. This group can probably be estimated in most countries as at least 5, probably 10 per cent, and in many case considerably higher.


Can the publication of easy-to-read material constitute a useful means both in the struggle against illiteracy and to give those with a reading handicap access to information and literature? Yes, I am convinced of it. But how do we define "easy-to-read"?The publication of easy-to-read literature, news and other information is based on the fundamental belief that all people are equal and that all people are therefore entitled to cultural experience and information appropriate to their own capabilities. In the least developed countries the figure for illiteracy is still more than 50per cent. Nine countries - Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan - account for more than half of the worldīs population and over 70 per cent of the worldīs illiterate adults.The increase in the number of literate adults is a result of the expansion of primary school enrolments and the impact of adult literacy programmes.Increasingly, literacy initiatives serve as a supplement to, not a substitute for, primary schooling. A growing number of participants in literacy and related adult basic education activities - often a sizeable majority - have had at least a partial primary education, but have failed to achieve an adequate level of functional literacy.Many children who are enrolled, especially in the least developed countries, attend schools that are patently inadequate in staffing, equipment and facilities to prepare them to lead product lives.

In 1990 there were an estimated 129 million out-of-school children in the developing countries and, even more alarming, this figure is projected to reach 145 million in the year 2000. For many people not in the habit of reading, easy-to-read material may open the door and awaken an interest in reading newspapers and books and an opportunity to practise their reading. Later on they may tackle books and newspapers published normally.For others such as the mentally retarded, easy-to-read texts may fill a need and be all they can manage in the way of reading.

One may ask whether it is really possible to endeavour to satisfy the needs of several groups in this way. However, experience of the easy-to-read material already published shows that interests in most cases can be combined. There is more holding the groups together than separating them.What can the need for easy-to-read material look like? Which groups may find the easy-to-read material of use to them, and the relationship between these groups, can be roughly illustrated using a figure. In the figure the various target groups are symbolised by circles and the squares represent the need for easy-to-read material. As can be seen, the need for easy-to-read material varies in most groups. Not everyone in a group requires easy-to-read material. In several cases the targets may overlap. A person can be uneducated, an immigrant and dyslectic, for instance.

What makes a text easy-to-read?

What do we mean by easy to read? Perhaps we really ought to say "easy to understand", since what we mean is texts that are easy to read and easy to understand not only because difficult words are avoided, but also because the presentation as such is made specific and easy to follow. Here are some examples of criteria or guidelines that can be used to make a test easy to read and easy to understa nd.

If this general advice is followed - concrete and logical story construction with a common thread in the story line and so on - then we can substantially reduce problems for people with intellectual disabilities. This kind of accessibility in most cases makes it easier also for other groups with reading difficulties - like dyslectics or people who are more or less illiterate. It is a simplicity that need not be distracting. A well-made text in a simple language can in fact be a positive experience for anyone to read.

The importance of pictures

We all know that a picture can say more than a thousand words. In the content of easy-to-read, pictures often play a more important role than in other types of books, papers or information material.A picture which concretely depicts that which is described in the text improves understanding and clarifies the message of the text.But a picture may also add another dimension to the text.

There has been considerable discussion about how to use abstract pictures in the easy-to-read context. Our experience is that abstract pictures can work well for an easy-to-read audience such as the intellectually disabled (who understand and interpret the world in a concrete manner.) An abstract picture can, for instance, communicate an atmosphere described in a text, strengthen feelings, and so on.However, the picture must agree with the text. A picture which leads in the wrong direction or does not communicate the same feeling as the text can instead confuse, making reading even harder for people with serious reading difficulties.


In the easy-to-read context the layout is almost as important as the content. Layout should be clear and comfortable. Wide margins and generous spacing make a text more accessible.Text should be in blocks with a limited number of lines per page. Place the words of the same phrase on the same line, i.e. each sentence should be broken off at speech measure.The cover should give a hint of the content. A book or a paper should have an attractive appearance, and for an adult audience, it should not give a childish impression. An easy-to-read book should look like "a real book".

Easy-to-read is not just one level

Easy-to-read is not about just one level. Easy-to-read literature is needed for different levels of difficulty. Differences in reading ability also exist within groups with reading problems. It is important to keep in mind that people with intellectual disabilities, for instance, are not a homogenous group, they range from severe cases to people on the border of normal intelligence.What sort of material should be available in easy-to-read form?Considering the need, all types of material should be available in easy-to-read form. There should be easy-to-read literature of both fiction and non-fiction, special titles and adaptations of the classics. These include all genres like novels, short-stories, thrillers, poetry, travel books, etc.

Regarding news information and information about society there is reason to lay stress upon the democratic right to easy-to-read versions. It can be said that the audience for easily understandable news and information about society is probably even larger than the audience for books.Many people experience difficulties in understanding normal news channels. Articles in newspapers are too long, written in a language that is too difficult, and contain too many specialised terms. The reader is also assumed to have substantial background information in order for the reporting to be comprehensible. Television news flickers by at a pace that is much too rapid for many people.

IT and media other than printed matter

Easy-to-read, or rather easy-to- understand, does not only apply to printed matter. Versions that are easy to understand and use are also required within of course audio-cassettes and also the new media such as computer- based programs. Multimedia or IT in particular may be of great interest to functional illiterates and weak readers and here it is a question of adapting the software so that it can also be used by these groups.

Different angles of approach to easy-to-read

A three-dimensional figure or a cube can serve to illustrate that easy-to-read material is required at several levels of difficulty, that both fiction and non-fiction are needed, and that there is a need both for material specially written and also adaptations of material already published.One might then continue by dividing fiction into various genres, and by dividing non-fiction in the same manner. In principle news and information about society can be dealt with in the same manner.(Picture)

How much easy-to-read material is available today? Some examples

A certain amount of easy-to-read material for adults - newspapers or books is published today in at least a few countries. In Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Italy, easy-to-read newspapers are published for adults with reading difficulties. In France, for instance, a newspaper for children is published. Newspapers containing information about society are published in several countries fo r immigrants. A paper for mainly young people with intellectual disabilities is published in Holland. (Pictures)

"Easy Readers" for students have been published in English since quite a long time. Easy-to-read books for adults are today published in the Nordic countries, Finland, Norway and Sweden, and to a certain extent in Germany. A certain amount of easy-to-read material, although perhaps primarily for children and adolescents, is also published in Denmark and Holland. (Pictures)The need of material for people with reading problems has also been the subject for some conferences with participants from different countries. (Picture)

What can easy-to-read texts look like? Some examples

A few examples are shown here, to give a better impression of what easy- to-read texts can look like. First a few short excerpts from two famous classics - the first page of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and an excerpt from Ball of Fat by Guy de Maupassant. These books are available in easy-to-read versions in Swedish and have been translated to English here. (Pictures)

Poetry can also be written in easy-to-read form. Here is an example from the Swedish poet Benkt Erik Hedinīs poems which have been translated to English and published by National Library in Australia. (Picture)

A page with easy-to-read news might look like the example in the picture about the 50th anniversary of D day during the Second World War. (Picture)

An example of important information about society is the United Nationsī Standard rules concerning the rights of functionally disabled people in society. A page from this communication, in an easy-to-read version in English, can be seen in the following example. (Picture)

Another example of information about society is material concerning the European Union, EU. This is certainly an issue that everyone affected should be able to study. (Picture)

Does easy-to-read work?

Does easy-to-read work for the groups we have discussed and is there any interest among presumptive readers? Obviously, just as in other connections, information and marketing are important if the message is to be disseminated, and special paths may have to be used.However, a couple of examples may serve to illustrate that easy-to-read material can work well for many groups. The easy-to-read newspapers, Klar Tale and 8 SIDOR, published in Norway and Sweden, respectively, are read by several groups such as immigrants, school children, dyslectics, mentally retarded, etc. The Norwegian Klar Tale has a circulation of between 13,000 and 14,000 and a considerably higher number of readers - in a country with approximately 4.5 inhabitants.

In Sweden an information sheet about the European Union was published in easy-to-read form prior to a referendum. 50,000 copies were printed first, followed by another 50,000, and the whole lot disappeared. Obviously, considerably more than expected, found the easy-to-read version useful.

Can countries cooperate in publishing easy-to-read material?

It should be possible for several countries to cooperate in publishing easy-to-read material, even if cultural differences sometimes exist that must be taken into consideration. A great deal of material, both text and illustrations, could be used in several countries and really only have to be translated. This could of course apply to many classical works of literature, such as The Count of Monte Cristo. Social information about the UN and other international organisations, for instance, publications like The Bible, factual study books containing medical advice, for instance, handbooks about the environment or other manuals and hobby books such as cookery books, and so on, should also be well suited for cooperation between several countries - as soon as it is understood how easy-to-read material can be used and as long as there is a determination to do something about illiteracy!It need not cost much more to produce literature and information which is easily understandable and it would probably be of benefit to a great many people!