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Consumer Resources for Clients with Limited Literacy

By Jennifer Leach, Deborah Kennedy & Miriam Burt

That the plain language consumer education materials of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) did not adequately serve legal aid clients quickly became clear when the FTC launched its Legal Services Collaboration in 2009.1 The FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education set out to create resources appropriate to the topics and educational approach needed by low-income clients who are adult English language learners or have low literacy levels. FTC staff worked with the Center for Applied Linguistics to develop parallel websites in English and Spanish for these readers. These websites, Consumer.gov and Consumidor.gov, give much the same information on essential financial subjects as the main FTC website does, but the new sites use language and formats that are accessible to users who find complex English text challenging.

Here we describe how FTC staff learned from the Center for Applied Linguistics how to think, write, and design for this different audience, how they chose which topics to take up, and how the center’s approach and the FTC resources could meet the needs of legal aid clients.2

An Unmet Need

The FTC is the nation’s consumer protection agency, charged under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act with protecting consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.3 The Bureau of Consumer Protection uses law enforcement, policy initiatives, and consumer education to accomplish the agency’s goals. To meet the FTC’s education mission, the Division of Consumer and Business Education (a division within the Bureau of Consumer Protection) produces practical materials in English and Spanish to help consumers spot, stop, and report fraud. The goal is to help consumers understand their rights and how to protect themselves—and to help businesses understand their responsibilities.

Incorporating all three approaches, the FTC’s Legal Services Collaboration was launched as the country faced mortgage foreclosures and record unemployment and as legal services offices saw increasing demand for services from people coping with the economic crisis. With the common goal of protecting consumers, FTC staff and legal aid attorneys across the country sought ways to support one another’s work. Both groups have come together with local law enforcement officials at “Common Ground” conferences that are still being held across the country to discuss the local issues that legal aid clients are facing.4 Those attending the conferences have developed ongoing relationships, shared information, opened investigations to stop predatory practices, and thus served consumers more efficiently.

Legal aid attorneys’ on-the-ground presence and deep knowledge of the scams and abusive marketing practices affecting clients make the attorneys’ experience and expertise vital to the FTC.

The value of the Legal Services Collaboration is difficult to overstate. Legal aid attorneys’ on-the-ground presence and deep knowledge of the scams and abusive marketing practices affecting clients make the attorneys’ experience and expertise vital to the FTC. Their input allows the FTC to serve better those segments of the population whose voices seldom reach it directly.5 Through the Legal Services Collaboration the FTC offered the expertise of its attorneys and investigators, the resources required to bring large cases and engage in aggressive law enforcement, and consumer education, all free of charge.

Because the audience for the FTC’s educational materials is composed almost exclusively of consumers, the materials use a style accessible to the broadest possible audience.6 With the Legal Services Collaboration, however, the audience narrowed and changed. This change required a new style, both in writing and design, to serve legal aid clients, and a focus on the topics most important to this audience. FTC staff turned to legal aid partners, the professional organization for teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL International Association), adult education teachers, and others to identify the topics most critical to their constituents. Among these topics were general budgeting and money management, credit, debt, prepaid phone and debit cards, immigration scams, money wiring, identity theft, and other scams and frauds.

Advocates also helped highlight their clients’ need for clear, straightforward advice about an issue and what to do about it; short messages; and simple language for people who struggle to read in English. Materials had to serve people with different needs—to be culturally neutral enough for English language learners but still relevant to people who had lower reading levels and whose first language was English. Materials also had to be available in English and Spanish. Simply rewriting existing materials would not suffice.

For guidance, FTC staff called on the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit educational research and consulting organization based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding in 1959, the center has conducted research and guided policy and implementation on a broad array of language learning and language use topics: immigrant and refugee integration; foreign language teaching at elementary, secondary, and university levels; and English as a second language instruction for adults and children. The center’s adult education experts develop and offer programs and materials that enable adults at all levels of English language and literacy proficiency to acquire the linguistic and cultural skills they need to succeed in the workplace, in further education, in the community, and in family and personal life.

For the FTC Consumer.gov project the center’s experts drew on their deep knowledge of how readers with limited English literacy approach and use both print and online material. The center developed a two-part training for FTC personnel on effective writing for readers with proficiency at or below the middle-school level. The first part of the training was a half-day workshop that introduced FTC staff to the nature of reading and reading comprehension at low proficiency levels. In one exercise trainers challenged FTC staff to read a 60-word passage in 60 seconds—that is, to read at the relatively slow pace characteristic of low-proficiency readers. This exercise gave FTC personnel direct experience with the challenges that these readers face in comprehending and retaining written information.

The workshop focused on how appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure, and mechanics could maximize comprehension for readers with lower proficiency.

The workshop focused on how appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure, and mechanics could maximize comprehension for readers with lower proficiency.7 Among the key points: use active verb forms, simple sentences, and consistent vocabulary; define potentially unfamiliar terms; and replace complex text with simple graphics. A related aspect of the training focused on website design, including structure and layout, to make navigation as intuitive as possible for readers with limited literacy skills. Among the key design points: use headings and subheads to organize text and guide the reader; place key information at the top of the page; balance text with graphics and white space; and maximize use of visuals.

At a follow-up workshop Center for Applied Linguistics facilitators guided FTC staff in implementing their specific ideas for both the content and design of the website. This workshop motivated FTC personnel to continue to develop design and content material on their own, communicating with the center when questions arose, and sending materials electronically for comments and feedback. At the end of the year, the center conducted a refresher workshop to enable FTC staff to continue working on their own.

The training program enabled FTC writers and designers to meet the needs of adults with limited reading proficiency in English. Within the United States, such readers of English fall into three broad categories:

  • Native speakers who read below a high-school level,
  • Nonnative speakers who have secondary or higher education in their native language but limited knowledge of English, and
  • Nonnative speakers who have less than a secondary level of education in the native language and limited knowledge of English.8

Members of the second group, while they may encounter challenges when reading English text, are able to apply their existing (native language) knowledge about how reading works. Members of the first and third groups do not have this advantage. They do not scan text and cannot understand a text by glancing at it; rather they must read word for word. They “plow” the text, focusing on one word at a time and moving their eyes slowly across each line—in the process skipping over large amounts of material because of the time and effort involved in reading it. Instead they may accept a limited amount of information as “good enough” because digging deeper requires too much reading. When reading on a computer screen, such readers often do not scroll because doing so breaks their visual concentration, and they cannot use scanning to return to a previous location. Search functions create problems for these readers. They may have difficulty both spelling query terms and processing search results; as a result they may simply pick the first option on a list, regardless of how well that option fits their needs.9

When reading on a computer screen, such readers often do not scroll because doing so breaks their visual concentration.

People whose first language is English but whose reading proficiency is limited possess one major asset that those whose first language is other than English may not: their familiarity with the language in its oral form gives them some ability to predict what is coming next in written text because they know what “sounds right” or “makes sense” from the perspective of spoken language. Nonnative speakers may have much more difficulty with what “sounds right” or may be influenced by what would “sound right” in their native language.10

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Creating Consumer.gov and Consumidor.gov

Development of Web-based resources for the intended audiences required careful analysis of the factors that promote or interfere with low-level readers’ ability to absorb information from written material. One major goal was to make content approachable and memorable. A second goal was to use design features that help users concentrate on and understand content rather than distract from it.

content
In creating educational materials for legal aid clients, the worst thing to do is to rewrite something produced for a general audience. Instead the task requires rethinking the piece: first the key messages and action steps, then the language.

In developing the content for Consumer.gov, FTC staff adhered to a set of basic guidelines:

1. Present only key information, and present it in small chunks.

2. Use simple sentences—straightforward subject-verb-object structure without subordinate clauses—and limit paragraphs to two or three sentences.

3. Eliminate or define technical terms, and avoid abbreviations whenever possible.

4. Choose active-verb rather than passive-verb structures, and use the simplest verb form.

5. Use the same word consistently for the same thing, and favor nouns over pronouns.11

6. Use examples, lists, tables, and other graphics to organize and present information.12

For example, the following text is on the FTC’s site for a general audience:

A payday loan—that is, a cash advance secured by a personal check or paid by electronic transfer is very expensive credit. How expensive? Say you need to borrow $100 for two weeks. You write a personal check for $115, with $15 the fee to borrow the money. The check casher or payday lender agrees to hold your check until your next payday. When that day comes around, either the lender deposits the check and you redeem it by paying the $115 in cash, or you roll-over the loan and are charged $15 more to extend the financing for 14 more days. If you agree to electronic payments instead of a check, here’s what would happen on your next payday: the company would debit the full amount of the loan from your checking account electronically, or extend the loan for an additional $15. The cost of the initial $100 loan is a $15 finance charge and an annual percentage rate of 391 percent. If you roll-over the loan three times, the finance charge would climb to $60 to borrow the $100.13

On Consumer.gov the information appears this way:

A payday loan or cash advance loan can cost a lot. Even if you only borrow money for a week or two until you get your paycheck.

For example:

You borrow $500. The fee is $75

You give the lender a check for $575.

The lender keeps your check and gives you $500 in cash.

After two weeks, you give the lender $575 in cash and you get your check back. The bottom line: You paid $75 to borrow $500 for two weeks.14

For challenged readers, the reformulation can go even farther. It might look like figure 1.

Figure 1. Payday Loans and Finance ChargesSource: Graphic developed by the Center for Applied Linguistics for use in training Federal Trade Commission staff.

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The Center for Applied Linguistics’ guidelines led to what was, for government agency staff, a notable change in approach. General audience educational materials necessarily cover many aspects of an issue. The materials serve in effect as policy statements for a government agency and thus convey what the agency needs to say—e.g., that the Fair Credit Reporting Act protects the privacy and accuracy of information in a credit report.15 However, in creating materials for people with limited reading proficiency, the overriding question was not “what does the FTC need to say?” but rather “what do people need to know?” Following the example above, does the target audience need to know what the Fair Credit Reporting Act does? Or does the audience need to know what credit is, what a credit report does, and why information the report contains is important? This change in perspective was essential for creating educational materials that the very audience in need of the information—adults with low literacy in English—could read and understand.

Legal aid attorneys were instrumental in how content on the site is organized. FTC staff asked the attorneys to help categorize topics that would appear on the site according to where their clients might be most likely to look for them. Several dozen legal advocates, teachers, and nonprofit staff participated in an online “card sort,” placing topics into one of several preselected categories or suggesting new categories. The result was the elegant three-category structure of Consumer.gov: Managing Your Money; Credit, Loans and Debt; and Scams and Identity Theft.

Consistent with other FTC educational materials, the site presents consumer education in a value-neutral way. The FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education has long taken the position that the government’s role is not to tell someone what to do but rather to convey what is likely to happen so that one’s decision about what action to take is an informed decision. For example, while Consumer.gov does not advise against using payday lenders, the site does say that payday lenders are very expensive and the reader might first consider other ways to borrow.16 Similarly the “Opening a Bank Account” page on the site does not encourage readers to open an account. Instead it discusses why someone might want to do so and explains the differences between banks and credit unions.17

As FTC staff worked on the site’s content, the primary focus was on what end users—legal aid clients, English language learners, adult learners—needed to know. However, conversations with legal aid attorneys, teachers, and other groups also suggested that these intermediary groups could use some additional resources. To that end, FTC staff created a section called “Help for You,” with worksheets, presentations, quizzes, and links to other resources for anyone who might want to train others on the topics.18 Information is also available on how to order the free materials, file a complaint, get an annual free credit report, and sign up for the Do Not Call Registry.19

designWhen creating Web-based material for low-proficiency readers, design and layout are as important as the language used. While native and nonnative speakers of English differ in their degree of familiarity with the oral language, and therefore in the strategies they bring to decoding written text, they share a relatively slow reading rate. As a result, they can focus only on a limited amount of material at one time. Websites for these readers should present information in small, manageable chunks; keep lines of text as short as possible; and avoid complex designs that present different types of material in different parts of the webpage.

When creating Web-based material for low-proficiency readers, design and layout are as important as the language used.

Because low-proficiency readers are not able to scan, they cannot quickly distinguish among multiple design elements to find the section of a page that meets their needs. A website designed for readers with limited literacy should have navigation that is simple and somewhat intuitive and should present content in ways that enable users to find relevant material easily and without scrolling down long pages of text.20 The Center for Applied Linguistics supplied guidance on these and other design considerations: typeface and font size, ratio of text to graphics to white space, and location of headings and graphics in relation to text. The center also worked with FTC designers to establish for the site a culture-neutral color scheme that guided the user through the use of consistent color for each main topic area.

On Consumer.gov the structure of the site and the structure of the articles evolved simultaneously, resulting in the division of each article into three sections:

  • What It Is (definitions of terms readers will meet);
  • What to Know (the most important things to learn about the topic); and
  • What to Do (the action steps to take).

Experience dictated that, for this audience, some materials needed to be in print. The one-page “What to Do” section became the print pieces, allowing legal aid clients, language students, and other adult learners to use a hard copy of the information they might need.21

The design guidance also clarified how to use graphics, audio, and video to reinforce the messages in the text. Educational researchers note that people remember 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they see, and 50 percent of what they both hear and see.22 For those for whom reading is difficult, text reinforcement with sound and pictures can greatly enhance understanding. FTC staff included audio, video, and graphics on Consumer.gov and Consumidor.gov. Audio is indicated by a megaphone icon; a reader who clicks on the icon will hear the text read aloud. Certain concepts (such as identity theft) that can be difficult to explain with just a definition are reinforced with short videos narrated in clear language.

With regard to graphics, the site consistently uses a few selected simple, iconic drawings: a dollar bill for budgets; a calculator for credit, debts, and loans; and a caution sign for identity theft. Website designers adhered to these other guidelines:

  • Use visuals that are meaningful to and appropriate for the intended readers.
  • Use visuals that are simple and free of background clutter.
  • Convey only one concept in each visual.
  • Use cues such as arrows or circles to identify key information.

The Outcome

On Consumer.gov and Consumidor.gov, FTC staff took seriously the idea of presenting information in different ways for people who learn differently. As simple and direct as the text is, there are sometimes opportunities to elaborate on a point or seek to explain it in different ways. “For Example” headers appear throughout the site to alert the reader of a vignette that illustrates a point just made. Sometimes the example is presented in writing, sometimes through a graphic, and in many cases through a simple animated video.23 The videos last no more than 90 seconds and purposely depict neither branding nor people. In the latter case, FTC staff sought to be as culturally neutral as possible to enable all viewers to see themselves represented and not be put off if they do not recognize themselves. FTC staff hopes that other organizations will copy and display the videos on their own websites to spread the consumer education message.

Additional conversations with legal aid attorneys, teachers, and others, including librarians and military groups, taught FTC staff several useful lessons in talking about these resources. For teachers of less proficient readers or for legal aid attorneys, describing the materials as being for readers who struggle with written English can be helpful in making the intended audience clear. However, for most groups, presenting the materials in a different way is more productive. For example, for librarians and servicemember groups, describing Consumer.gov and Consumidor.gov as offering basic consumer protection information plainly and simply, in a way that does not require too much time from the reader, has been helpful.

Lessons for Legal Aid Attorneys

As FTC staff members travel around the country and hold “Common Ground” conferences with local advocates and law enforcement, the power of consumer education for legal aid clients is always discussed. Many attorneys have made the point that keeping clients out of trouble in the first place often is easier than extricating them from a difficult situation later. In fact, many legal aid offices have excellent local and state consumer education materials. In those cases, Consumer.gov usefully supplements resources.

Other advocates have noted that their workload does not allow them the time to engage in consumer education. Still others have said that they struggle at times to explain complex issues to their clients. In both of these cases, Consumer.gov resources have been particularly welcomed. Attorneys who have computers available for client use can direct clients to a relevant section of Consumer.gov and can have a supply of printed materials on hand so that clients have something to take away. The information comes in a folder that includes all the topics in both English and Spanish and in pads of 50 copies on an individual topic.24

Everything the FTC produces is in the public domain, and thus programs and individuals may reuse and repurpose any part of Consumer.gov or Consumidor.gov with or without attribution. To explain debt collection to clients, for example, attorneys may cut and paste any useful part of “Managing Debt” and may copy the articles, in full or in part, to post on their programs’ websites or elsewhere. The same is true for the videos; in fact, each video has a button that allows the user to grab the video. Advocates may cite the source if doing so is helpful, but no attribution is necessary. The FTC’s main goal is broad dissemination of the information.

The Center for Applied Linguistics welcomes inquiries about writing and providing services for readers with limited literacy in English.25 FTC staff members welcome suggestions for additional resources and topics on which material is needed, particularly from those who deal with these issues every day.26 Reaching diverse, often underserved audiences is a priority of the FTC. Additional educational work continues to be important, but FTC staff members hope to focus more on law enforcement and advocacy on behalf of vulnerable groups—older adults, servicemembers and veterans, immigrant communities, and low-income consumers. Building upon the relationships created with legal advocates is vital to our common mission to serve these communities.

Jennifer Leach

Consumer Education Specialist

Division of Consumer and Business Education

Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20580

202.326.3203

jleach@ftc.gov

Deborah Kennedy

Associate Vice President, Adult English Language Education

Center for Applied Linguistics

4646 40th St. NW

Washington, DC 20016

202.355.1572

dkennedy@cal.org

Miriam Burt

Adult ESL Content Specialist

Center for Applied Linguistics

4646 40th St. NW

Washington, DC 20016

202.355.1556

mburt@cal.org

2 The views we express in this article are ours alone and not the views or opinions of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or any individual commissioner.

3 The FTC generally has jurisdiction over anyone that advertises, markets, or sells any goods or services in the United States except banks, common carriers (such as telephone companies), and the business of insurance (Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2); McCarran-Ferguson Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1012(b)).

4 Among recent conference locations were Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Albuquerque. For more information, see Consumer.gov, Common Ground Agenda (n.d.).

5 The FTC receives complaints directly from consumers and from other governmental and nongovernmental data contributors, all of which go into the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel online database. The complaints help the FTC and other law enforcement agencies target bad actors and build law enforcement actions. Consumers can file complaints online or by phone (1-877-FTC-HELP); legal aid attorneys also can file complaints on behalf of their clients.

10 Burt et al., supra note 7.

11 Id.; Kruidenier, supra note 7; Long, supra note 7.

12 AMC Cancer Research Center, supra note 7.

16 See Consumer.gov, supra note 14.

20 Nielsen, supra note 9.

21 Consumer.gov and Consumidor.gov materials are free and can be ordered in bulk as either a folder with one copy of each topic (in English and Spanish) or a pad of 50 sheets on any individual topic—including a worksheet to help people make a budget (see Federal Trade Commission, Order Free Publications (n.d.)).

22 Jon Saphier et al., The Skillful Teachers: Building Your Teaching Skills (2008).

25 For further information and assistance on projects and materials for this audience, visit the Center for Applied Linguistics website, or contact Miriam Burt or Deborah Kennedy.

26 Please contact Jennifer Leach about suggestions.

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