A Teacher’s View of Accessibility

by Kathryn Jewell on January 30, 2014

“Huh?”  That’s one response that no teacher wants to evoke.

Delivering clear, simple, and understandable explanations are what teachers strive for, but don’t always achieve.  We try to stay student-centered in our lesson design, but inevitably, students for many reasons struggle to follow along.  As hard as we try, we cannot expect that our teaching will adequately reach every student, unless we incorporate strategies that allow access for all.

I think the same concepts apply to technical writing.  Though our audiences range from highly-skilled professionals, to office workers, and to the general public, these concepts that follow are relevant because our users are the very people that teachers worked with.  We’ve all felt that same “huh?” when reading documentation that is unclear or inaccessible from a writer who just leaves us cold. What can we learn from teaching that will help us be better writers?

One morning as I was eloquently explaining a scientific concept, a student responded with a perplexed look to what seemed to me a clear explanation.  Something wasn’t connecting.  Why?  What was I missing?  That night I had to go back and use a fine tooth comb to go through the words and concepts that I used.  Then, there it was. I had used jargon that I hadn’t defined.  So I retaught using simpler words with an additional illustration to bring them to understanding.

The point is, though I used jargon in that example, there are plenty of other reasons why communication isn’t successful.  One of the most universal issues is not paying enough attention to the various learning styles.

For example, as most of us technical writers are auditory and word-based, we tend to think that just explaining it in prose is sufficient.  What is the poor visual learner to do, who just sees a wall of grey type?  She needs to see photos, a diagram, or a chart to “really get it.”  Think of ways to rephrase your content visually, with a table of information that shows the relationships between concepts.

Photos are also effective for the kinesthetic learner.  He needs to see action, observing how things are actually done, especially in user manuals.  In other types of projects, writing out step-by-step instructions helps users to follow along, as they imagine themselves doing the action.

I’m a big picture person.  When I take a class, before I hear any examples, I need some scaffolding to hang them on.  Where does this class fit in the large scheme?  Where does this bit fit, and what is the path to get there?  I think in outlines.  My friend is just the opposite.  She can’t get to the big picture unless the instructor starts with several examples.  Then she can piece together the general principles.  So it seems that some people are inductive and others are deductive thinkers.  Inductive thinkers need plenty of examples from which they make conclusions about the rules.  Deductive thinkers need the big picture and the rules first; only then can they make sense of the examples. Think about how you present material, and provide a way for each direction of thinking, providing both principles and examples.

Be careful.  In your quest to become more accessible you can “get off on the wrong foot” and “get in over your head” if you don’t pay attention to the huge number of body-based idioms in the English language.  These make no sense in any other language, and yet persist, invisible to us, in our everyday speech.

Probably the most important adjustment we need to make in our writing for English as a second language users is to use “plain English” rather than words that mean the same thing but are unnecessarily complex.  This is a challenge for me, and I take the time to go back through my writing and look for them in particular.  College writing is infamous for encouraging an unnecessarily high vocabulary, so this can be a tough habit to break.  I recommend the book, Plain Words by Ernest Gowers for more information.

In the general population there are of course students with special needs, learning disabilities, and sensory processing problems.  Fortunately, the successful accommodations are generally the same as those used for the learning styles and English language learners.  Teaching them in plain English and using several examples from a variety of learning styles makes it more likely that they will reach understanding.  User guides can especially benefit from these accessibility techniques.

By the way, what is your tone?  Does your writing spring from a heart of wanting to help your reader?  Emotional intelligence does matter to technical writers because both students and adults can tell very quickly if they are being “talked to” or “talked with.”  People respond instinctively to supportive words.  My favorite is “you can” because it’s empowering and simple to use.

Teachers design “practice” for their students in the form of classwork or homework.  In technical writing, practice appears as well thought-out examples and illustrations.  Are you using enough for your reader to be successful?  Are they accessible?

Lastly, teachers reteach.  They present material, then go over it again the next day.  They design evaluations to find out what students still are not understanding, and reteach that. They are always shifting the focus of their teaching based on the needs of the students.  As writers, we can’t be that interactive with our audience, but we can certainly collaborate, reaching out to others with different learning styles or first languages and gathering their impressions and feedback.  You can ask them to screen your writing for the issues discussed above.

Knowing your students, their capabilities, and issues is the starting point for teaching.  For technical writers, it is in audience analysis that you get to know your users’ strengths and weaknesses.  Planning for learning styles and language accessibility is critical for a successful deliverable.  Providing sufficient illustrations along with the big picture, and delivering the content from the heart will open new doors to understanding.

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