Digital Divide – Low Literacy Users and the Web

Consideration of the Digital Divide has concentrated on the differences in the ability to access online digital resources; these differences, and their effects, have been measured by region, socio-economic group, gender, age, education. Discussion centres on the global divide (more developed national infrastructures enable easier access) as well as divisions within countries (higher socio-economic groups can afford better equipment and faster connections).

As well as the question of who is missing out on the digital revolution and the ubiquity of easily accessed information due to issues of connectivity, web accessibility is a measure of whether material published on the web can be read by different groups regardless of their ability to use traditional browser technology.

This blog post focuses on a part of web accessibility that cannot be improved by careful or clever coding, or new-fangled screen readers, but is solely dependent on the quality of the content – how low literacy users use the web.

“Lower literacy is the Web’s biggest accessibility problem, but nobody cares about this massive user group.”1

Low literacy rates bar chart

Low literacy rates across Europe

Nielsen says that 40% of the population of the United States are classified as having low levels of literacy, but few websites follow guidelines for writing for people with low literacy.

His guidelines recognise the fact that lower literacy level groups read the web in very different ways from the norm – not scanning, for example, but reading every word, following each line from beginning to end.

Other characteristics include the tendency to satisfice (accept the first pieces of information read as ‘good enough’), because deeper digging requires additional reading, difficulties scrolling pages and then picking up where they left off and problems with search including difficulties spelling search terms and inability to process results. 2

The importance of taking low literacy levels into account when creating a web content strategy is discussed in ‘The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had’ 3, a white paper written by Angela Colter and published in Contents, an online magazine ‘at the intersection of content strategy, online publishing, and new-school editorial work’. The paper was published in 2012; the magazine is no longer being updated.

White Paper Critique


The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had


Angela Colter


The article focuses on the need for web content creators to write for their audience; the obvious point is swiftly followed by a reminder that figure show that close to half of the adult population of the United States – as well as Canada, Australia, most of Europe – are classified as having low levels of literacy.

The author argues that low literacy brings its own behaviours that are, due to force of circumstance (stress, confusion, tension) often exhibited – albeit temporarily – among people with normal/high literacy levels. An example is the (mistaken) acceptance of the first result displayed in a Google search for the ‘correct’ or ‘desired’ result, often with painful and expensive consequences.

Other behaviours include reading one word at a time, taking things literally, retaining and/or understanding little and avoiding reading altogether.

The author suggests a number of strategies that can accommodate low-literacy readers, and provides a strong argument that this process of simplification is not ‘dumbing down’, but simply expressing content clearly, thus making it more comprehensible for all.

Quality & Structure

While not particularly original – the article draws heavily on Nielsen’s 2005 and 2006 articles – this article is a well-argued review of an important issue that provides a number of clear references to the facts behind low literacy in the United States and beyond. This is an important issue whose scope is wider than the title suggests.

The paper is well structured; headings reflect the organisation of the paper into three main sections: definition of the problem; description of behaviours caused by the problem; and finally, a series of non-complex remedial actions that all creators of written web content can adopt.


  1. Jakob Nielsen, Digital Divide: The 3 Stages, (; 2006 
  2. Jakob Nielsen, Lower-Literacy Users: Writing for a Broad Consumer Audience, (; 2005 
  3.  The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had, Contents issue 2, 2012, (

3 responses to “Digital Divide – Low Literacy Users and the Web

  1. Pingback: 6 topics in IS – Assessed blog posts | mscismarksanders·

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