In Plain English: 5 Tips for Simplifying Your Content Writing for International Students
Date posted: February 1, 2017
As international markets become increasingly important for student recruitment, schools need to ensure that their messaging is being clearly understood by a growing variety of audiences. Navigating university websites to find necessary information like admissions processes can be complex at the best of times, but for non-native English speakers it’s particularly challenging. Similarly, content marketing initiatives like blogging and social media may lose much of their effectiveness if they’re largely incomprehensible to their intended readers.
Studying abroad is an immense decision that is often made by an international student’s family after extensive research of available resources. Many schools simplify this process by creating dedicated pages on their website for students from top source countries with translation options, localized social media and SEO, and multilingual microsites.
While these efforts will greatly improve your accessibility to targeted markets, being more attentive to the nuances of your English writing will make your communications even more understandable (and actionable!).
1. Understand the Internationalization of English
Although there are more Mandarin and Spanish native speakers globally, English has become the most widely spoken language in world history. Some experts estimate that 1.5 billion people can communicate reasonably well in English, of which at least three-quarters are non-native speakers.
While its dominance as the language of international business is a primary motivation for millions of ESL (English as a Second Language) and other international learners, it’s interesting to note that business meetings held in English appear to actually run more smoothly in the absence of native English speakers. This is because native speakers are generally poor at making themselves understood – often underestimating the complexities of the language and using colloquialisms, slang and culture-specific references – while non-native speakers communicate more purposefully and carefully with simpler vocabulary and expressions.
As instances of misunderstandings between native and non-native English speakers have occasionally caused offense that triggered huge business losses, recognizing these tendencies in your own international messaging can have significant benefits. Clear and efficient communication can save time and avoid misinterpretation for even native English speakers, who frequently scan webpages quickly or may have reading disabilities or lower literacy. It also makes your texts more understandable for translation software, which may be used by international prospects or their parents.
Organizations of all types have found that updating user manuals with plainer language dramatically decreases customer support calls, saving significant time and money. It makes your content more inclusive and accessible, even for skilled readers who may be rushed, tired or have trouble viewing the screen. As the characteristics of a “typical” student continue to evolve, removing unnecessary complexity from your content is particularly worthwhile for programs targeting demographics like local immigrant populations or struggling high school students.
2. Respect your Target Audience with Clear Communications
In writing, we don’t receive the non-verbal cues that convey whether a message has been understood so it’s entirely the responsibility of the content provider to eliminate ambiguity. Knowing your target audience is the first rule of marketing but in the growingly global education industry where it can be difficult to discern who is reading your content, it’s preferable to err on the side of simplicity, particularly for important international messaging.
According to research from Hobsons, these are the priorities for students on your website:
- Course information
- Entry requirements
- How to apply information
- Scholarship information
- Accommodation information
- Career outcomes
- Contact details
- How to enquire
- Institution rankings
- Subject rankings
To help students with limited English language proficiency find this key information, seek ways of streamlining navigation options, reducing unnecessary clutter and communicating with images whenever possible.
Example: University of Pennsylvania’s English Language Programs (Penn ELP) wanted to improve its website’s accessibility and user experience, among other goals. The redesign uses visual language like the logos below to augment text content, providing simpler pathways for its core audience of non-native English speakers.
3. Write in Global English
Global English is an increasingly popular concept as an evolution of the language, aiming to unite diverse dialects and move towards an international standard of cultural neutrality. As opposed to localized versions of English found in the UK or USA, it is a language owned and accessible by everyone, emphasizing clarity, brevity and non-technical communication. It’s essentially plain English with additional attention to audiences important for international student recruitment, simplifying expression and translation while sounding natural to native speakers.
The aerospace industry was an early adopter of simplified technical English, using a controlled vocabulary and established rules to minimize misunderstandings. According to its rules, each word from an approved list has only one meaning and synonyms aren’t permitted.
- Use a word with its primary meaning. For example, “Close” is to shut (i.e. “close the door”, not “go close to the door”, which would be written “go near the door”)
- The limited and straightforward vocabulary includes the more familiar “start”, rather than synonyms like “begin” or “commence”
- Use simple tenses, direct statements and active voice (i.e. “if the certificate is lost it may be recovered” instead of “if the certificate had been corrupted, it may have been recovered”)
While these are helpful guidelines to keep in mind, global English is less a prescriptive set of rules than an ideal of expression for optimizing your reader’s time and comprehension. Be careful with words that have multiple meanings and multi-word verbs (like “carry out” instead of “do”, or “put up with” instead of “tolerate”).
Seek opportunities to improve clarity by breaking up long sentences without leaving out important syntactic cues (like “that”, “the”, “a”) that help readers analyze a sentence’s structure. Use only one idea per sentence. Avoid or provide context for idioms, jargon and acronyms that don’t translate literally (like “out of the blue”) and verb phrases that are unique to American or British English. Although brevity and simplicity is the goal, choose the words that a wider audience is more likely to understand with a consistent terminology (i.e. “let’s examine the problem” instead of “let’s go through the problem”).
The subject-verb-object sentence structure is generally the most easily understood approach throughout the world. Avoid double negatives, negative questions, unclear pronoun references, uncommon foreign words, unnecessary abbreviations and contractions. MailChimp has a helpful content guide for translation.
Example: English Studies Institute (ESI) uses strategic inbound marketing to reach prospective international students with limited English skills, including easily understandable blogs with simple sentences and visual context.
4. Integrate Best Practices for Online Content Writing
Your content can become more intelligible for readers with limited English by simply applying best practices for writing for the web. This includes using a good font size; breaking up text with paragraphs, sub-headings and bullet lists; maintaining a good balance of white space; and providing contextual visuals. Images, videos and infographics are powerful communication tools in a content strategy for schools that often transcend language. Of course, it’s also necessary to optimize your site effectively for all screen sizes.
5. Test the Readability of Your Content
Effective editing is an essential component of content creation – diligently proofread to eliminate redundancy, spelling and grammar mistakes, and confusing phrases. In addition, there are several tools and usability tests available to evaluate how your content may be perceived. Readability formulas can quickly assess the literacy or grade level required to understand a given text selection:
- The Gunning-Fox Index considers average sentence length and percentage of difficult words to judge your content’s reading grade level
- The Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level use algorithms to score your content’s readability and grade level for comprehension, respectively (a score of 60-70 and a 6th to 8th grade reading level are usually considered good for broad audiences)
- Read-able will calculate these and other formulas for a given URL or text selection
- Google can assess your website’s reading level by substituting your school’s URL in this string: https://www.google.com/#q=site:college.edu&tbs=rl:1
- The Hemingway App is a great tool that highlights complex sentences, common errors and passive phrases while also providing a readability score
Keep in mind that readability formulas are predictive indications at best and usually don’t assess the content quality, word layout and design, nor the general meaning and comprehensibility.
How can you ensure that your content adequately communicates the desired messages to your target audiences? Although sometimes underestimated, content comprehension is at least as important in usability testing as information architecture, design, layout and call-to-action placement. The best placed CTA won’t be successful if your content isn’t easily understandable.
For important web content, it’s best to rigorously test usability internally, checking that it is sufficiently clear for non-native English speakers. You could ask participants to read a passage to themselves before paraphrasing it aloud, or read a passage aloud and pause if they encounter anything confusing. Creating different versions of particular pages with A/B testing to assess wording choices could make a difference in conversion rates.
Higher education analytics results can also provide helpful data to determine whether your pages are working as intended. It can be challenging to precisely measure the effect of language choices on pages dense in information but metrics like session duration, bounce rates and button clicks can indicate the relative success of your web content. Segregating this data according to various geographic regions and demographics can yield further insights.
Plain English: Conclusion
While simplifying your content with plain English has plenty of advantages in reaching international prospects, it’s important to remember that simplicity is relative to your audience. Global English can sound repetitive and boring compared to the average marketing copy, which tends to be more flowery and punchy but is also designed for audiences who can understand and appreciate such language.
Therefore, take the time to research your targeted audience and develop comprehensive persona(s) that specify their motivations, concerns and demographic information as much as possible, and seek to continuously improve this knowledge as you monitor results and receive feedback. Writing in plain English reduces the chances of costly misunderstandings and simplifies the path to recruitment, which should be the goal of every school.
How has your school simplified your communications for international students?