There are five key things Carleton’s web content editors should do:

  1. Provide good image descriptions.
  2. Use descriptive link text.
  3. Use headings.
  4. Add captions to videos.
  5. Write & edit text for readability.

1. Provide good image descriptions

People with visual impairment may not be able to see the images you place on your site. Because being accessible means that all communications — textual or visual — can be understood by all visitors, we need to provide a textual description of every image on our sites. This is called “alternative text” or “alt text.” All images must have Alt Text associated with them (this is actually a legal requirement, not just a nice-to-have).

Not sure how to write alt text for your image? Check out the Alt Text Decision Tree!

Sometimes we give images alternative text that is not helpful for those using screen readers. Examples of poor alternative text include:

  • Image
  • Photo
  • img_12345.jpg

None of these provide a user with enough descriptive information to know what the image depicts.

Instead, we should provide descriptive, informative text, such as:

  • Students playing Ultimate on the bald spot
  • Laird Hall
  • Group photo of the 2022–23 RAs

How do I fix this?

  1. Edit the content of the page
  2. Click the photo that is displayed
  3. Edit the image’s alternative text.
screenshot of wordpress page editor highlighting an embedded photo and red arrow pointing to the alt text field

Additionally, it’s best practice to add alt text upon uploading images to your Media Library. When editing the image details there is a field at the top for alternative text.

screenshot of attachment details window in the WordPress media library, red box surrounding the alt text field

Links (formally known as hyperlinks) are the most fundamental form of interactive web content: A user clicks on a link, and they are presented with another web page. Links are so commonplace that we often forget the importance of using them correctly.

Links have two components:

  1. The URL or address (e.g. “https://www.carleton.edu“)
  2. The link text (e.g. “the Carleton College homepage”)

The link text should ALWAYS describe what the user will be presented with when they click the link. It should never say “click here” or display the URL itself. You should also never use link shorteners or QR codes on your web pages — those are only useful for printed materials!

These are examples of incorrect ways to include links (DON’T do this!):

These are examples of correct ways to include links:

More Tips on Links

  • Always verify your links before placing them on your webpage by copying and pasting them into another browser, window, or tab.
  • Whenever appropriate, include links on your page to relevant information such as academic departments, faculty bios, student organizations, etc.
  • With rare exceptions (such as within a web form), do not force a link to open in a new window. It is a violation of usability and accessibility standards because it disables the back-button feature. By default, when adding a link to your text in WordPress, it does NOT open the link in a new tab.
  • Do not use third-party link shorteners such as TinyURL or bit.ly on webpages. There should be no need to display a visible URL since you can just add a link to your text. If you need a URL shortcut for printed communications, use Carleton’s “go.carleton” service.
  • When writing blog/news posts, always include a few links. Use internal links to previous blogs or to other Carleton websites. Use external links when referencing someone else’s content. This will better your readability and enhance your blog post in search results!

3. Use headings

If your pages are lengthy and not broken up by embedded images, then you should make use of headings. Heading text is displayed at a larger size (and sometimes in a different typeface) to distinguish it from standard paragraph text.

Section Headings

The use of headings on a page has many benefits. It helps break up the visual monotony of a page full of words — separating it into smaller, more specific sections — and it gives users a sense of what they will find on the page. Headings allow a user to quickly scan a page and find the specific content that they are seeking.

Headings also allow visually impaired users to scan your pages, since a screen reader can identify them. (Bold text is not a useful heading, as it is unrecognizable to assistive technology.) Screen readers and other browser tools allow users to jump from one heading to the next, so they are also used for navigation within a page.

heading levels from oen down to 4

Heading Hierarchy (H1–H6)

Headings are ordered by both size and importance, and it’s important for accessibility that you use them in the proper order, rather than choosing them for the way they look on the page.

The Main Heading (H1) is reserved for page titles only — you should not use it for other purposes. The next level of heading is called a Section Heading (H2). The additional heading levels — Section Subheading (H3) and Detailed Subheading (H4) are the most commonly used, but there’s also an H5 and H6 available if you really need them.


4. Add captions to videos

All videos on Carleton websites must include captions.

It is the responsibility — both ethically and financially — of the office or department responsible for the production of the video to provide captions, whether those be done manually via Imagen or Amara for free, or a paid service such as Rev (the college’s preferred caption provider).

Roughly 85 percent of internet users watch videos with the sound off, making captions a necessity for viewers to enjoy your content. No matter where your video is shared (social media, department web page, email, etc.) it should contain captions so that individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, or for those whom English is not their first language, can access your content.

Additionally, captions are a legal requirement. Not captioning videos could potentially create a lawsuit for the college; all colleges and universities are expected to comply with ADA regulations unless they can prove undue hardship. For more information on ADA compliance and legal requirements, contact Carleton’s Office of Accessibility Resources.

Captioning videos also increases your viewership as it allows people to watch on their mobile devices, in public, or when their device is muted. It also increases watch time, which is a factor in many platforms’ algorithms and may help boost your content and expand the reach of your video.


5. Write & edit text for readability

We want all readers to readily understand the information we share on our sites. Complex text can be a major barrier for many readers with cognitive or reading impairments, or those where English is not their first language. The more readable your text, the more inclusive your site will be.

How do I write readable and accessible text?

  • Use short words, sentences, and paragraphs.
    • Aim for words with no more than 3 syllables
    • Aim for sentence length of 8–15 words
    • Aim for a paragraph length of 3 sentences, no more than 5.
    • An easy way to break up long sentences? Start a new one with a conjunction! You may have been taught that it’s wrong to begin a sentence with “and,” “but,” “or,” etc. But it’s totally fine!
  • Use lists instead of sentences filled with commas.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Use active voice.
  • Use plain language.
    • Address the reader directly. Use a conversational style.
    • Use common words.
    • If a domain-specific term is needed, define it in plain English.
  • Score 60+ on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability test.

Try to rework any text that gets a Flesch Reading Ease score below 60

How to get a Reading Ease score

Editing your text for readability

Readability Rewrite Example

“Before” Example (reading ease: 29)

This website is intended to help students in writing essays and other papers by giving basic information on the proper use and proper acknowledgement of source material.

“After” Example (reading ease: 69)

Learn how to properly use and acknowledge your sources when you write essays and other papers.

This rewrite now directly addresses the reader, it’s clearer, it uses an active voice, and it omits needless words.

Note that you are not required to revise all the way to a 60+ score, but there is usually some room to improve the readability of any text that scores below that threshold.

Common Myths about Readability

Myth 1: My readers are well-educated. They can handle complex text.

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease is a mechanical test that measures reading ease for everyone.

Higher numbers mean a text is easier to read. Lower numbers mean it’s harder to read. This is true regardless of educational attainment. Even a PhD will find text that scores at 70 is faster and easier to read than text that scores at 30.

A high score does not mean the target audience is young or the content is unsophisticated.

Myth 2: My readers are smart. I don’t need to worry about readability.

Intelligent people can have cognitive disabilities. Of course all of Carleton’s students are smart and can understand complex concepts. But some of these smart students have a reading disability. For them, long sentences are a barrier to comprehension.

Myth 3: This subject is specialized. I need to write at a sophisticated reading level.

Sophisticated concepts can be communicated without complex sentences.

It is almost always possible to rewrite for readability without changing meaning. It’s not always easy — but possible.

This is where you can apply your expertise as an educator and explainer. George Boolos famously wrote an explanation of Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem using only one-syllable words. We’re not asking you to do that! But it shows what’s possible with a bit of ingenuity.

Myth 4: I can’t achieve a score of 60, so there’s no need to try.

score of 60 is a goal. It’s not a straightjacket. Wrestled a 25 text up to 45? Don’t see how to raise it further? That’s a major improvement — we’ll take it!

We can help. Send your text to Doug Bratland — he’ll suggest changes to improve readability.

Myth 5: I can’t touch that text. It’s mandated by others.

Sometimes it’s not possible to rewrite a text for readability. Examples include mandated policies, or direct quotes.

Official accessibility standards offer a solution. Write a plain language summary and place it before the text.

Why don’t we use grade levels instead of a reading ease score?

Some discussions of readability refer to “grade levels” for text. This is confusing because we are usually not writing for actual 8th graders. When we write for accessibility we are writing for all of our readers. This includes adults who have learning or cognitive disabilities. A senior Physics major may be a brilliant budding scientist — and have dyslexia. So it is clearer to use the reading ease score. This way we don’t get confused by the language of grade levels.