How Writing for English as an Additional Language Audiences Has Helped My Technical Writing

Skills for Communicating Clearly and Simply

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Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

Considerations When Writing for an EAL Audience

Those who are new to the English language are already expending considerable energy on communicating in a new language. It is really important to not unnecessarily complicate what you teach. Here are some important considerations when writing for those who are not native English speakers:

  • Use simple words over complex ones: This is not a time to impress people with your large vocabulary. Save it for your next Scrabble game! Use simple words that most people know. If it is necessary to use a complex word to get a point across, use simple words to define the complex word. Test out if words are actually simple by talking to an EAL speaker or to a six or seven-year-old native English speaker.
  • Write shorter sentences using the active voice: In general, aim to write shorter sentences and paragraphs organized by sections. Use the active voice whenever possible. For example, it is better to say, “Read the product label before using the product” than “The product label should be read before the product is used”. The first statement is much less roundabout and is easier to understand. I also find it more pleasant to write in the active voice. As someone who has written technical reports with formats requiring the passive voice, I appreciate not needing to contort my writing to find ways to describe an action without specifying its subject.
  • Use visuals to enhance understanding: The liberal use of carefully chosen visuals can really help fill in the reader’s vocabulary gaps. Choose photographs, drawings and diagrams that aren’t too “busy” and contain only a few elements. For example, if you are trying to illustrate the word “label”, a close-up picture of a label would be preferable over a picture of several bottles on a table with the label turned towards the viewer. The first has a reasonable chance of being interpreted as “label” while the second may be interpreted as “bottles” or “supply area”. Sometimes, you may need a series of visuals to demonstrate an abstract concept. For example, we used a series of pictures contrasting “safe” and “not safe” when educating our EAL learners.
  • Use real life examples to demonstrate concepts: Most people (and especially new English speakers)find it easier to understand concepts through the use of concrete examples over abstract explanations. Use examples that are relevant to your target audience; keeping their culture, past experiences, and age in mind.
  • Engage the reader by asking questions and suggesting activities: Understanding is enhanced when we are asked to think about what we read or find hands-on ways to apply what we have learned.

How Writing for an EAL Audience Can Improve Your Other Technical Writing

You will likely find that writing for an EAL audience (or imagining that you are) will improve your technical writing for other audiences. Here are some ways writing for new English speakers can help you better write for everyone:

  • It teaches you to structure your writing in a logical format.
  • Many people besides new English speakers prefer simpler, more streamlined writing. Younger readers and those with less education may require simpler vocabulary. More educated readers may be too tired or busy for long, complicated explanations. And if you are writing instructions, many people would like to just get to doing the thing you are explaining.
  • It will prevent your writing from sounding stuffy or pretentious.
  • It will help you think of things from your reader’s perspective. This is helpful for all types of writing, including fiction writing.

I’m a business trainer specializing in workplace wellness and environmental sustainability. In my spare time I dabble as a mad scientist and street philosopher.

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