Plain language: more than words

How does the brain work during reading? This post looks at the huge effort required to process written text, and suggests the benefits of plain language for reducing that load.

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Plain language: more than words

Plain language: more than words

Our brains are amazing. They keep us safe and allow us to relate to others. They enable us to think and feel. They create memories and connect new and old information. And our brain is never more amazing than when we read.

When we read our brain must do multiple mental tasks and keep track of huge amounts of information at the same time. Reading involves:

·         multiple sub-processes in the brain

·         activation in multiple areas of the brain

·         linguistic and non-linguistic processing

·         interconnectivity of the cognitive and emotional networks

·         visual recognition of letters

·         comprehension at the discourse level

·         articulation.

Reading is a complex skill, as described by neurobiologist Siusana Kweldju: ‘reading involves all of the regions of the brain, because it involves all cognitive functioning of humans -- verbal and non-verbal’. The cognitive functions involved include ‘attention, planning, abstract reasoning, predicting, inhibition, use of strategies, problem solving, working memory, and long-term storage memory and retrieval of vocabulary and concepts, the procedural skill of retrieval, the use of grammatical knowledge, and the motor mechanism for visual processing, and production’.

In simple terms, in order to read and understand a piece of text, our brain must recognise letters and words, apply grammatical knowledge, figure out the grammatical (syntactical) meaning, and then place this in the context of our world knowledge and make inferences of the writer’s intended meaning. We must hold specific pieces of information in working memory while at the same time retrieving information from long-term memory. We must use both linguistic and non-linguistic processing, involving the interconnection of the cognitive and emotional networks.

What emerges from this bird’s eye view of how the human brain reads is that clear writing is about more than using common words and short sentences. Essentially, writers need to reduce cognitive load – the effort that readers must make. Plain language practitioners use all sorts of complex measurements, techniques and rules, but fundamentally, reducing reader effort requires two things:

1) organising and connecting information clearly, and

2) using familiar words and constructs.

Modern brain imaging and research into artificial intelligence have shown in detail what regions and networks in the brain are involved in reading. Scientists can even see greater brain activation when a sentence is ‘incongruent’ – unexpected or difficult in some way. And studies have also shown that text that demands too much effort leads to demotivation – in plain terms, the reader stops reading. Ultimately the goal of plain language is to keep readers reading by minimising effort and maximising information gain.


‘Neurobiology research findings: How the brain works during reading’, Siusana Kweldju, The Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), PASAA 50, July - December 2015, 

‘Evaluating Text Quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods’, Karen A. Schriver,

'A 10-minute intro to scientific support for using plain language', Cheryl Stephens,