Letter from the UK: The Ladybird Book of Technical Writing

by Ellis Pratt on 7 February 2014

Generations of British children learnt to read with Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme books in the 1960s and 70s. The books were designed as materials for teaching a small child to learn to read, using a system of key phrases and words devised by teacher William Murray.

According to Wikipedia, from research undertaken in the 1950s by Murray with Professor Joe McNally (an educational psychologist at Manchester University), Murray realised that only 12 words account for a quarter, 100 words account for half, and 300 words account for three-quarters of the words used in normal speaking, reading, and writing in the English language.

The appeal and success of the books was not only down to the sentences. Illustrator Harry Wingfield’s realistic pictures were wonderfully detailed, and the books used a typeface (similar to Sassoon infant) that was easy to for children to understand.

So I wonder if there might be a place for this type of approach in technical writing. At Cherryleaf, we have written user guides for military equipment (where users were not native English speakers) using simple sentences and diagrams, and there is, of course, the Simplified Technical English standard in the aerospace industry. However, I’ve yet to come across a guide that has illustrations as engaging as Harry Wingfield’s, or uses a Ladybird-like font.

So I’d be interested in your thoughts—do you think this type of approach might work?

See also: The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug

Ellis Pratt is director at Cherryleaf, a UK technical writing services company. Ranked the most the influential blogger on technical communication in Europe, Ellis is a specialist in the field of creating clear and simple information users will love.

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