How people read

Date adopted: 
August 14, 2018
Last update: 
August 26, 2020

Knowing how people read means you’ll write in a way they can understand easily and quickly.

All of this guidance is based on the learning skills of an average person in Yukon. This guidance also applies when you’re writing for specialists.

Common words

By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Adults still find these words easier to recognize and understand than words they’ve learned since.

By age 9, your primary set is around 5,000 words; your secondary set is around 10,000 words. You use these words every day.

Use short words instead of long words

Keep it simple. When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), readers are more likely to skip shorter words (3, 4 or 5 letters) that follow it.

For example:

“The recently implemented categorical standardization procedure on heating oil should not be applied before January 1, 2015.”

The "not" is far more obvious in this:

“Do not use the new heating oil standards before January 1, 2015.”

Reading skills

By the time children are 9 years old, they’ve stopped "reading" common words and, instead, recognize their shape. This allows people to read much faster.

People also do not read one word at a time. They bounce around – especially online. They anticipate words and fill them in.

Your brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand. Your vocabulary will grow but this reading skill stays with you as an adult. You do not need to read every word to understand what is written.

This is why we tell people to write on for a Grade 7 reading level. You can test the readability of your content with a free online tool such as Hemingwayapp.

Explaining the unusual

We explain all unusual terms on This is because you can understand 6-letter words as easily as 2-letter words – if they’re in context. If the context is right, you can read a short word faster than a single letter.

By giving full information and using common words, we’re helping people speed up their reading and understand information in the fastest possible way.

Short sentences

People with some learning disabilities read letter for letter - they do not bounce around like other users. They also cannot fully understand a sentence if it’s too long.

People with moderate learning disabilities can understand sentences of 5 to 8 words without difficulty. By using common words we can help all users understand sentences of around 25 words.

Capital letters are harder to read

When you learn to read, you start with a mix of upper and lower case but you do not start understanding uppercase until you’re around 6 years old.

Capital letters are reputed to be 13 to 18% harder for users to read. So we try to avoid them.

All capitals indicate shouting in common online usage.

Ampersands can be hard to understand

Ampersands (&) should not be used in body copy.

The reason is that "and" is easier to read and easier to skim. Some people with lower literacy levels also find ampersands harder to understand. As government, we cannot exclude users in any way.

How users read web pages

Good online content is easy to scan and takes minimal effort to understand.

Users read very differently online than on paper. They do not necessarily read top to bottom or even from word to word.

Instead, users only read about 20 to 28% of a web page. Where users just want to complete their task as quickly as possible, they skim even more out of impatience.

Web-user eye-tracking studies show that people tend to "read" a webpage in an "F" shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.

What this means is: put the most important information first. So we talk a lot about ‘front-loading’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points.

For example, say "Fishing licence fees" not "What it costs to get a fishing licence."