The writer of the blog: Bettina M. Bock
Where and how are easy-to-read (ETR) texts used at the workplace? How can they foster participation in working life? What is meant to make texts comprehensible for people with low-level reading skills or intellectual disabilities? And how consistent is this with current easy-to-read practice in Germany? These were the main questions of the “LeiSA” (= Leichte Sprache im Arbeitsleben) interdisciplinary project at the University of Leipzig, Germany (2014–2018). This project was conducted through collaboration between linguists and social scientists and followed a participatory approach by including adults with intellectual disabilities in the research process.
The sociological sub-project explored how the ETR concept is used in sheltered workshops and integrated workplaces. The team then investigated whether using ETR material in working life has positive effects on the participation of handicapped employees. They found that ETR material alone does not improve occupational participation, but were able to show that it promotes empowerment. However, as the sheltered workshop system does not seem to support these empowerment processes, the use of ETR material at the workplace actually caused a reduction in the satisfaction and motivation of the workshop employees (cf. Goldbach/Bergelt 2019).
In this blog post, I would like to focus on the linguistic sub-project and its empirical investigations. One of the first questions we asked at the beginning of the project in 2014 was: Which linguistic practices do ETR texts employ? What does making texts comprehensible for target groups mean? We collected a corpus of 404 texts (approx. 640,000 tokens) which were either labeled ETR (Leichte Sprache, Leicht lesen) or showed obvious similarities with ETR. We also collected a corpus of 300 texts that were labeled “plain language” (Einfache Sprache) (approx. 780,000 tokens). We then wanted to compare the lexical, grammatical, and propositional characteristics of ETR German to those of plain German. We also wanted to see whether the texts adhered to some of the strict ETR rules (e.g., no negation or genitive case).
The situation in Germany is unique. As in other countries, rulebooks and guidelines suggest how language and texts should be simplified. But in contrast to other countries, these rules are generally not understood as recommendations but as strict norms that have to be followed – if they are not followed, the text cannot be defined as ETR. On the one hand, this widespread understanding leads to rather inflexible, “universal” ETR practices that do not pay much attention to context factors such as the specific target group, text type or situation. On the other hand, there is no real uniform practice. Even texts that commit to a specific rulebook do not necessarily fully follow its norms, as our corpus analyses showed. This specific German situation is undoubtedly an interesting potential field for further sociolinguistic investigations, especially with regard to linguistic ideologies and the status and handling of linguistic norms in society.
The main part of LeiSA’s linguistic sub-project was comprehension studies using two target groups: adults with intellectual disabilities and adults with (internally or externally ascribed) low-level reading skills. We focused on a variety of linguistic levels. In a psycholinguistic study in cooperation with Sandra Pappert (Pappert/Bock 2020), we tested a controversial ETR rule concerning word segmentation. A sample of individuals, some with intellectual disabilities and others with poor reading skills, performed a timed lexical decision task on unsegmented and segmented noun compounds. The compounds were semantically either transparent or opaque. The results of our study show that segmentation has an advantage independent of semantic transparency. At the same time, the main effect of semantic transparency indicates that the meaning of the compounds was accessed. Our results support the practice of segmenting compounds in ETR German.
However, this was not the case in all of our studies. For instance, the results of our examinations of the pragmatic aspects of text comprehension did not support current practices. ETR German has no context- or text type-sensitive rules. Roughly speaking, all texts “look pretty much the same”, both linguistically and visually. In one study we therefore wanted to explore whether people with intellectual disabilities have any concept of text types and whether they are able to capture the text’s pragmatic function when reading (Bock 2019). We reconstructed their situation models and context models from retrospective interviews and from their online commentaries while reading authentic ETR texts. In a second study, we investigated whether the participants with intellectual disabilities and low-level reading skills were able to recognize text types when they could only use visual and haptic text features (Bock 2020). In cooperation with designer Sabina Sieghart, we prepared sheets with typical macro-typographic features, but only dummy text and blurred pictures. Some of these sheets had visual and haptic features, which are typical of ETR German, others had the features of conventional text type designs. We compared the correctness of text type comprehension using a questionnaire and an oral interview. Both studies showed that the vast majority of our participants have a knowledge, either a more or less elaborated, of text type and function, which they were able to activate in our tests. Our comparison of ETR-typical and text type conventional macro-typography shows that conventional visual design is always well recognized, whereas general ETR designs often lead to false text type associations which in turn are likely to be an obstacle to text comprehension.
Currently we are working on an accessible website that introduces the main results of the two sub-projects of LeiSA in an easy-to-understand form. Again, this project is designed participatory and we are working closely together with people with intellectual disability.
Bock, Bettina M./Fix, Ulla/Lange, Daisy (Ed.) (2017): „Leichte Sprache“ im Spiegel theoretischer und angewandter Forschung. Berlin. [= „Easy-to-read“ in the mirror of theoretical and applied research.]
Bock, Bettina M. (2019): „Leichte Sprache“ – Kein Regelwerk. Sprachwissenschaftliche Ergebnisse und Praxisempfehlungen aus dem LeiSA-Projekt. Berlin. URL: https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:bsz:15-qucosa2-319592 [= „Easy-to-read“ – no Rulebook. Linguistic results and practical recommendations from the LeiSA-project]
Bock, Bettina M. (2020): Makrotypografie als Verständlichkeitsfaktor. Empirische Studie zum Erkennen von Textsorten am Beispiel der „Leichten Sprache“. In: Zeitschrift für angewandte Linguistik 73, 1-32. doi:10.1515/zfal-2020-2050 [= Macrotypography as a factor for comprehensibility. Empirical staudy on the recognition of text types using the example fo „Easy-to-read“]
Goldbach, Anne/Bergelt, Daniel (2019): Leichte Sprache am Arbeitsplatz. Sozialwissenschaftliche Ergebnisse und Praxisempfehlungen aus dem LeiSA-Projekt. Berlin. URL: https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:bsz:15-qucosa2-383782 [= Easy-to-read at the workplace. Sociological results and practical recommendations from the LeiSA-project]
Pappert, Sandra/Bock, Bettina M. (2020): Easy-to-read German put to test: Do adults with intellectual disability or functional illiteracy benefit from compound segmentation? In: Reading and Writing 33, 1105–1131. doi:10.1007/s11145-019-09995-y