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How to Choose and Develop Written Educational Materials (CE)
Linda L. Pierce, PhD RN CNS CRRN FAHA

Education is a key component of comprehensive rehabilitation care because it helps promote clients’ healthy behaviors and recovery from diseases and injuries or adaptation to chronic conditions. Choosing to use written, organization-based, commercially generated, and Internet-based educational materials is dependent on credibility, readability, and availability. If these materials are unsuitable or no appropriate information on a topic is available, the decision to adapt existing material or design new materials must be made. Recommendations for developing readable materials center on having a clear purpose for writing about a topic; listening to patients; presenting accurate information that reflects accepted, common practice; and using a clear writing style. The strategies presented in this article are intended to help nurses and other healthcare professionals choose or develop educational materials for patients and their family members.

As the length of hospital stays continue to decrease, nurses and other healthcare professionals are challenged to adequately educate patients and their families prior to discharge. The Joint Commission and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) make client education outcomes a priority and survey focus area (CARF, 2008; Rankin, Stallings, & London, 2004). However, no matter where care is dispensed—from hospital to outpatient to nursing home to home settings—educating patients is essential for achieving successful outcomes. For example, inadequate information sharing and poor communication in hospital and postdischarge settings for stroke survivors are major areas of dissatisfaction for this population and their caregivers (Hoffmann, McKenna, Worrall, & Read, 2004; Pound, Gompertz, & Ebrahim, 1994; Tyson & Turner, 2000). Patient education is a critical component of comprehensive care because it helps promote healthy behaviors, recovery from diseases and injuries, and adaptation to chronic conditions.

Frequently, professionals rely on oral education to teach patients important components of care, such as basic information about stroke, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and congestive heart failure; medication dosages; dietary regulations; bowel and bladder management; and treatment and therapy schedules. Mansoor and Dowse (2003) reported that patients retain only 20% of what they hear. Written materials can strengthen or augment these verbal directives, having the potential to improve patients’ knowledge and confidence, increase their participation in healthcare decisions, and encourage adherence to the treatment plan. Written materials offer message consistency, aid information recall, and further clarify information or instruction provided verbally (Wiles, Pain, Buckland, & McLellan, 1998). Ideally, written education materials should be used as an adjunct to—rather than a substitute for—verbal education, because they can be referred to later when reinforcement is needed (Hill, 1997; Wiles et al.). However, for these written materials to be valuable, patients must be able to read and understand the content. The purpose of this article is to provide strategies for choosing and developing meaningful and appropriate written educational materials that are patient focused.

Choosing Written Educational Materials

Before choosing educational materials, conduct a professional assessment—paying attention to your clinical experience—of the patient’s educational needs and listen carefully to his or her perceptions of what he or she wants to know. After the patient’s educational need is established, questions will emerge. Will available written materials that are organization-based or commercially generated be usable? Will materials found on the Internet be appropriate? Carefully choose any written educational materials by assessing the content for credibility and readability.

Appraisal of Credibility

All written materials—print or electronic—need to be reviewed for credibility, accuracy, and completeness. Some critical indicators for credibility include satisfactory author and publisher credentials and verifying the information has been peer reviewed by authorities in the field. Authors and reviewers with advanced degrees, employed by reputable organizations (e.g., well-known universities, government agencies) or with numerous publications on the topic, tend to be more credible than those who lack any of these credentials. In addition, respected publishers, such as those affiliated with reputable organizations or universities, are more credible because they have reputations to maintain. Credentials provide proof that the materials are accurate, based on sound reasoning, and contain all necessary information.

Another element in establishing credibility is timeliness. Educational materials, print or Web based, should be published within the past 2–3 years, with cited references no older than 5 years. New knowledge becomes available as scholars continue to conduct research and clinicians apply the generated evidence in their practices. Look for materials with authors who appear to consider various interpretations and present balanced accounts. Beware of materials that present only evidence that supports one interpretation. Avoid materials with an agenda—political, ideological, or financial. One clue an article may have an agenda is the author’s use of emotional tone or language. Drug companies may present a biased narrative in their materials because their goal is to market their products. Finally, evaluate the reasoning of an author’s argument. Try to avoid sources that rely on false arguments, which can distract or mislead readers rather than build on objective reasoning. Three common logical fallacies in articles include (1) referring to an argument that is actually a personal attack, (2) distracting the reader rather than building an argument, and (3) asserting causality because one event took place first.

When using Internet-based materials, the type of Web site the educational material appears on—home pages, special interest, professional, news or journalism, and commercial sites—is important to consider (Montecino, 1998). Personal home pages are maintained by individuals and most likely informal (i.e., individuals post personal opinions and showcase ideas). Special interest sites are usually maintained by not-for-profit organizations or activists dealing with particular issues (e.g., legalization of marijuana, assisted suicide). They can be relatively mainstream or radical in interests and vary widely in credibility of information. Special interest sites are, by their nature, biased based on the views of the authors. Professional sites are maintained by institutions or organizations, and sometimes by individuals. These sites may house research, reference sources, and fact sheets. Many institutions provide such services to the public, and the credibility of the institution or professional credential of the individual provides clues as to the reliability of the presented information. If this site is only linking to other Web sites for information, the credibility of the information is connected to the originating sites. News or journalism sites may include national news, international news, online newspapers, magazines, and homegrown publications. Anyone can publish any type of “news” on the Internet. It is important to remember that just because information is published it does not necessarily mean it is true. However, if a periodical article has an International Standard Serial Number, it carries more authority. Commercial sites may represent legitimate businesses; however, some sites may not be legitimate, and many are in the business of making money as well as acquiring and retaining customers. Readers should be wary; these sites are inherently biased in favor of the business’s products.

To help determine different types of Web sites, it is helpful to look at the domain names: .edu indicates an educational institution; .gov indicates government entities (e.g., National Institutes of Health, Library of Congress); .org refers to organizations (e.g., Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, Sigma Theta Tau International); and .com is used for commercial groups (e.g., WebMD, or Prevention; Johnson & Lamb, 2007; Montecino, 1998).

Table 1 lists seven criteria useful for evaluating Web sites (Beck, 2009; Schrock, 2002; Standler, 2004). Some colleges and universities post criteria and how to evaluate informational resources on their library home pages (e.g., Cornell University Library, www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/evaluate.html; University of California, Berkeley, www.lib.berkeley.edu/instruct/guides/evaluation.html). If the information presented in print or posted to a Web site is deemed credible, then its readability is assessed.

Table 1

Assessing Readability

Readability of written materials is an attempt to match the reading level of the text to the “reading with understanding” level of the reader. Most people read and understand content that is between a 7th and 9th grade reading level, which is approximately junior high level (McLaughlin, 1969). However, Friedman, Hoffman-Goetz, and Arocha (2004) found that the majority of Web sites for breast, colon, and prostate cancer (n = 55) were written at grade 13+ level, which demonstrates that the information is presented at a college level. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, approximately 30 million adult Americans are at a below-basic level in health literacy, which is the ability to use reading skills and understand health-related materials and forms (Baer, Kutner, & Sabatini, 2009). It is important that educational materials be written at a 6th grade (or lower) reading level (Badarudeen & Sabharwal, 2008; Monsivais & Reynolds, 2003).

One way to measure readability is to use the SMOG (simplified measure of gobbledygook) formula developed by McLaughlin in 1969, which is presented in Table 2. In addition, McLaughlin has an online calculator to determine SMOG reading grade level (www.harrymclaughlin.com/SMOG.htm) that allows you to quickly and easily calculate the readability level of any text by entering 30–2,000 words. Another way to check readability of materials is to use word-processing programs, such as Microsoft® Word or Works, or Word Perfect®. Run a grammar check to obtain readability statistics and determine how difficult a reading passage is to understand. For example, in the Microsoft® Office Word 2007 program, reading level can be automatically checked for any document using the Flesch-Kincaid formula. Highlight any word in the document, click on “Review,” select “Spelling & Grammar,” and the U. S. readability grade is automatically calculated.

Table 2

Other considerations to weigh include word choice, image use, and the design; it is important to make choices that will best help readers understand the content. Materials need to be written using common words. For example, use “stroke” in place of “cerebrovascular accident” or “change the bandage before breakfast, after lunch, and at bedtime” for “tid” (an abbreviation for ter in die, which in Latin means “three times a day”). Another important point is to assess the use of jargon (e.g., acute, chronic) that is used without being defined. In addition, evaluate whether there are drawings, pictures, or diagrams that help readers to better understand the written content.

Design elements for print or Internet materials also contribute to readability (e.g., font size, layout of text, information broken into smaller sections; The Literacy Company, 2009). Generally, look for written materials that have a font size of at least 10–12 points, which is about the size used in most journal articles and larger than 8-point fonts used in many newspapers. Also, assess the material for how the information is presented or laid out on the page. Be sure to look for use of headings and topic sentences, along with fewer words and shorter sentences. Finally, evaluate if the material’s content is split into more easily digestible and understandable chunks or sectioned into short bits of information (The Literacy Company). These design components make text easier to read and comprehend.

If credibility and readability remain issues for the chosen materials, most nurses and healthcare professionals will seek other published sources of information on the topic. However, appropriately written materials may not be available, especially for some highly specialized areas. If there is nothing suitable, the decision to revise already written materials or develop new educational materials must be made.

Developing Written Educational Materials

Many of the same strategies used in choosing educational materials can be used in revising or developing new materials. When beginning the development or revision process, you must define the goal or purpose for writing about the topic and identify the target audience, because each will impact every future decision. The goal will determine what information will be included in the text and whether illustrations will be used. For example, if your goal is to show the proper use of a prosthetic limb, emphasize the outcome of its proper use and include pictures. An example sentence might be, “Properly following directions for putting on your artificial leg may help prevent skin sores.” A picture of a person without any signs of skin breakdown correctly putting on the limb will reinforce this information. Clear and precise teaching goals help focus the materials on what patients need to learn from the written materials.

The target audience is usually determined from basic demographic information, such as age, gender, ethnicity, language, health conditions. This information can be gathered from program statistics or agency demographic information. Oftentimes these patients can provide input because they have experienced the condition or situation. These individuals may want to understand the cause of their problems or their treatment options, which includes any risks, or to know what they can do to help themselves deal with the issue (Turnbull, 2003). Depending on the topic, there may be more than one target audience that could benefit from the educational materials. However, there are standard approaches to writing educational materials that must be considered to meet the needs of a targeted audience.

General Considerations in Developing Materials

Focus the material on a few key concepts that flow from the goals. Throughout the material, use consistent, simple words that are 1–2 syllables (e.g., “walk” for “ambulate”; “bruise” for “contusion”) and an average sentence length of 10–12 words (Aldridge, 2004; Monsivais & Reynolds, 2003). Be sure to use a clear topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph. Follow the topic sentence with details and examples (Turnbull, 2003). For example, “Proper use of crutches helps you walk in a safe manner. Here are the reasons why.” Next provide reasons for why this is true. Emphasize benefits of adopting the desired behavior, such as, “Using these tips can help you build your strength and endurance for walking.” The inclusion of examples and stories may help engage readers, but limit paragraph length to 4–5 sentences. Within any paragraph, tell three or fewer points about the topic. If the information is too complex, break it into more paragraphs or use lists. Start a new paragraph when the topic changes. Use the second person point of view (i.e., “you”) because personalization helps the reader understand what he or she is supposed to do (Turnbull).

The use of Internet resources may also keep readers interested in the topic. However, remember to evaluate the Web site using the criteria presented earlier in the article (see Table 1) before including it into the written material (Beck, 2009; Schrock, 2002; Standler, 2004). One caveat of using any established Web site is that information may move to another location, be deleted by the authors, or removed from the Web site entirely.

Arrange the content in a logical manner; some readers prefer step-by-step instructions; other individuals find that concepts arranged from the general to the specific are easier to comprehend. A question-and-answer format can also be useful in presenting information. In structuring the ideas, the reading level should be kept at about a 6th-grade level (Badarudeen & Sabharwal, 2008; Monsivais & Reynolds, 2003; Thorley, 2005–2006). Use the information presented earlier in this article and displayed in Table 2 to calculate the reading level for the text (McLaughlin, 1969).

Unlike verbal instructions, written educational materials serve as a permanent record of instructions given to patients (Aldridge, 2004). The information must be accurate and reflect accepted, common practice. It is advisable to place a disclaimer at the end of the material (Aldridge), such as, “The medical information presented in this material is meant for general educational purposes only. Please contact your healthcare provider for specific medical concerns or treatment. Further, the inclusion of links to external Web sites is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed or products or services offered by the author or the organization operating the site.”

Another general strategy is to personalize the written material to encourage patients to actively use the information (Aldridge, 2004). This can be easily accomplished by leaving blank spaces to insert information pertinent to the patient, such as setting aside room to insert the individual’s blood pressure readings or laboratory values. The material can also be tailored to the specific plan of care used. For example, if from a class of medications, one specific drug is used by a prescribing advanced practice nurse, physician assistant, or physician, it should be included in the materials. On the other hand, if a certain drug is not routinely prescribed, it should not be included in the written material (Aldridge).

Language and Writing Style

Gender-free or neutral language, as well as sensitivity to the cultural values and beliefs of diverse communities, must be considered when developing educational materials. When writing, find alternatives for complex words, medical jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms to make the material more readable. When no alternatives are available, spell complex terms and abbreviations phonetically and give clear definitions. A glossary is important for difficult terms and should be placed at the beginning rather than at the end of the written material, where the reader will be more likely to find and use it. Likewise, keep your language conversational and use complex words mainly for precision. Statistics and other facts are simple ways to support your point, but ensure your facts are correct. It is best to write using consistent terms throughout the material (Aldridge, 2004; Monsivais & Reynolds, 2003). For instance, do not use “drugs” and “medications” interchangeably. In addition, keep most sentences short; but vary sentence length to maintain interest while keeping the sentences simple. Another idea is to use the active voice, which is more authoritative, and vivid verbs (e.g., “assert yourself”) in writing (Monsivais & Reynolds; Turnbull, 2003). Active voice uses words like “I” and “you.” Passive voice is indirect, makes the writing vague, creates a distance between the message and the audience, and frequently contains more words, which can make reading the material difficult. Here is an example:

  • Active voice: Mary used her walker today.
  • Passive voice: The walker was used by Mary today.

When possible, say things in a positive way (Turnbull, 2003). For example, use the sentence “Drink less caffeinated soda.” instead of “Do not drink lots of caffeinated soda.”

Visual Presentation and Representation

In developing written educational material, consider using colors that are appealing to your target audience. However, be aware that some individuals cannot tell red from green because of color blindness. Use photos with concise captions and keep captions close to the images. Avoid graphs and charts unless they actually help readers understand content. Balance the use of text, images, and white space. Some writers use chunking of information, which is simply splitting the information into short, easily scannable elements, which helps to cluster main ideas (Aldridge, 2004). Use bullets to call attention to main points in the text. Avoid words or sentences in all capital letters, and avoid italic font because it is harder to read. Do use bolded subheadings to separate and highlight sections and, when possible, spell out fractions and percentages—it makes the text easier to read and understand (Monsivais & Reynolds, 2003).

Test the Developed Material

After the material is developed, test the new material to ensure the audience will get the message (Aldridge, 2004). The evaluation process of pretesting the material with select professional content experts and members of the target audience helps determine whether the material is easily understood, credible, appropriate, useful, and attractive or attention getting. Pretesting can be conducted using self-administered questionnaires, interviews, or focus groups with 5–10 individuals. Self-administered questionnaires are quick and relatively inexpensive to administer. They can be mailed or distributed and collected in person. A minimum of 20–30 completed questionnaires should suffice for reviewing the material. Individual interviews or focus groups (with at least 5 people), asking a short list of structured questions about the materials are also good for testing. These methods are cost effective if individuals can be interviewed in a short amount of time. If testing is not possible, continuously analyzing feedback from your patients is a must. In addition, ask yourself, “Does this material help achieve the intended teaching goals?” If not, begin the process of re-evaluating the written educational material.

Discussion and Conclusion

According to a study of 20 stroke team members conducted by Hoffmann, McKenna, Herd, and Wearing (2007), only 70% of these professionals provided written educational materials to patients. Ninety percent of study participants reported that patients and their families rarely or occasionally received sufficient written information. Limitations of this study were a small sample size from one metropolitan area, untested questionnaire without established reliability and validity, and a retrospective report that was subject to recall bias (Hoffmann et al., 2007). Nonetheless, this study reinforces that the amount of written educational materials being distributed to patients by healthcare professionals needs to be increased.

Strategies are necessary to ensure that patients receive comprehensive educational materials when in the hospital and after being discharged to other settings. Furthermore, no matter what the setting, it is important to establish explicit guidelines for

  • which materials must be distributed and reviewed with patients dealing with specific diseases, injuries, or chronic conditions
  • how and when professionals should disseminate information to these patients.

Predetermined materials could be organized in packets and made available for distribution. A simple and easy-to-use checklist, which becomes part of the patient’s medical record, could be used as a record of the information provided to and discussed with patients. The information presented in this article can be used by nurses and other healthcare professionals to enhance their ability to choose or develop educational materials based on specific patient needs as well as appropriate quality, readability, and presentation.


Judith P. Salter, MSN RN CNS, adjunct instructor at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, OH, is thanked for her substantive review of this manuscript.

About the Author

Linda L. Pierce, PhD RN CNS CRRN FAHA, is a professor at the University of Toledo in Toledo, OH. Address correspondence to her at l.pierce@utoledo.edu.

Author has no relevant financial relationships to disclose. This article does not discuss off-label use.


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