How Low-literate Adults Read and Navigate Web Pages

On the National Institute for Technology Technology list in May, 2003 there was a discussion with health literacy researcher, Christina Zarcadoolas, about her study Unweaving the Web, in which she and her co-investigators, Andrew Pleasant and Mercedes Banco, looked at how low-literate adults read and navigate Web pages.

The discussion began with this post, #2825, and ended I think, with #2855.

Discussion moderator Emily Hacker wrote:

In preparation for our discussion next week on “Unweaving the Web: An
Exploratory Study of Low-Literate Adults’ Navigation Skills on the World
Wide Web,” Christina Zarcadoolas e-mailed me the following introduction and
some questions to think about. We will get officially get started with the
discussion with Christina, Andrew and Mercedes on Monday. Please get ready
to jump in with your comments/questions/ideas so we can have a rich, active


Hello all,
Thank you for taking an interest in our work and more importantly, in the web and literacy. Emily said it might be useful for me to post some questions related to web based comprehension that we think about. These questions certainly have propelled our research. We’ve only begun to answer our own questions. I have asked 2 co-authors, Andrew Pleasant, a communications expert (Brown and Cornel) and Mercedes Blanco ( Maximus Inc., a cultural competency expert, to join the discussion. I am a sociolinguist ( studies how people use all forms of language – spoken, written, visual) to make meaning. I’ve spent the last 30 years working in literacy and health and environmental issues. With so many people online and going online it’s clear we need to know far more about the usability of this stuff. N. Jakobson’s wonderful work ( is ongoing and rich. However there is very little research getting published on how less literate people manage on the web nor on how literacy and web reading interface. Here are some questions you might want to keep in mind for our discussion next week. We look forward to your questions and the dialogue.
* How are print and web based information similar?
* How are they different?
* What can web based info do that print material can’t?
* What “principles” of readability may defy what we know about reading in hard copy?
* What do we assume users can do when they’re using our websites?
* What are common problems in websites?
* What characteristics of the web do “we” like – are these preferences shared by low literate users?
* What are some principles of written and spoken language at work on the web?
* What are some technology fixes to the barriers that the web presents?
* Who should be on a web design team?
* What areas of future research and discussion are needed to identify how to tailor web sites for comprehensibility?


Christina Zarcadoolas, PhD
Center for Environmental Studies
Director, Environmental Literacy Initiative
Box 1943
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
(401) 863-7347
fax (401) 863-3503

I replied:

The “Unweaving the Web” Study is very helpful. Below are some of my
initial thoughts about it:

The study confirms the widely observed importance of (and my 1995-1996
research on) content interest such as: health information,
school/homework information, child care/parenting, Web-based job
searches, Web-based apartment searches, and home country information.
“News” “weather,” “history,” “church/religion”, “maps,”
“literature/poetry,” “real estate/finance,” “languages” and
“chat/e-mail” did not show up in my early research.

The observations on the kinds of assistance Web users sought was
interesting: e.g. reminders needed to scroll, and to look for action
buttons. The scrolling and action button problems are not a surprise to
me, but it was good to see these issues are confirmed.

I was reassured to see that unlabeled graphic links was found to be a
problem. I have observed this problem with many new Web users,
especially low literate users.

I hadn’t thought about pull down menus as a problem. But, of course,
they would be if one had not seen this feature before.

I didn’t know back arrows were a problem for some people. Of course,
typing Web addresses is a problem for many people — especially for
those who do not write well. The observation that typing Web addresses
was experienced as a difficult transition, the ‘dynamic jump from the
body …to the small URL address window,” was new for me.

Searching, of course, has many challenges, some of which your study
documented, as does judging reliability of Web information.

Your study supports the Children’s’ Partnership study findings that busy
Web pages are not attractive to low literate adults, and that they
present multiple barriers.

The problem of translation mirror sites which you raised was interesting
— I hadn’t thought about this.

The whole Further Study and Recommendations Section was great — I
especially liked the user path history suggestion.

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