The power of clear writing: a student truancy case study

Two versions of the truancy letter. Actual letters were in black and white; the colored font is shown only to illustrate modifications.

Can clear communication get truant students to come back to class? According to the results of a recent experiment, a clearly written letter was 40% more effective than the school district’s usual gobbledegook communication.

The truancy experiment

To succeed, students generally need to attend classes. Legally, a school district must inform parents of truant students — that is students who are missing classes or days at school — that unexcused absences have legal consequences. But what’s the best way to persuade those parents to get the students back to class?

In a recent experiment, four researchers– UC Berkeley’s Jessica Lasky-Fink, Harvard’s Carly Robinson and Todd Rogers, and Hedy Chang, from the vendor Attendance Works — tested the effect of changes in the truancy letter sent by a large urban public-school district.

Here’s an example of the standard letter that the district typically sent:

School Name 
City, State Zip 

Parent Name 
Parent Address 
RE: Student Name 
City, State Zip 

Student ID#: XXXXX 

Dear Parent/Guardian: 

Good attendance is required for academic excellence. [STATE] Education Code determines what types of absences are excused or unexcused. When a child is absent from school and/or tardy in excess of 30 minutes on three (3) occasions in one school year without a valid excuse, the law considers that child to be truant. The law and district policy requires all schools to notify parents when this occurs. The [district name] central office automatically sends these letters based on school records so that parents are aware of absences and can address these concerns. 

School records indicate that your child was absent from school without a valid excuse on occasions, beginning with the following dates: 

Thursday, September 12, 2015 
Thursday, September 19, 2015 
Thursday, September 27, 2015 

Our goal is to partner with families to ensure that students are attending school every day. Although the following consequences may appear harsh we are mandated by Education Code Article 48260.5 to inform you of the following: 

  • That the parent or guardian is obligated to compel the attendance of the pupil at school. 
  • That parents or guardians who fail to meet these obligation may be guilty of an infraction and subject to prosecution pursuant to Article 6 (commencing with Section 48290) of Chapter 2 or Part 27. 
  • That alternative education programs are available in the district. 
  • That the parent or guardian has the right to meet with appropriate school personnel to discuss solutions to the pupil’s truancy. 
  • That the pupil may be subject to prosecution under Education Code Section 48264. 
  • That the pupil may be subject to suspension, restriction, or delay of the pupil’s driving privilege pursuant to Section 13202.7 of the Vehicle Code. 
  • That it is recommended that the parent or guardian accompany the pupil to school and attend classes with the pupil for one day. 

Please recognize that we are required to monitor attendance and notify parents of potential problems with student attendance. If you have concerns about your child’s attendance, or if you believe there is an error in this notice, contact the school at «SCHOOL_PHONE_NUMBER» . The designated attendance personnel will work with you to resolve this issue. We look forward to assisting you. 


Principal Signature 

Principal Name 

As communication intended to accomplish a goal, this letter is terrible. It opens with the generic statement “Good attendance is required for academic excellence” and continues with legal definitions and threats. It’s full of jargon. It’s got plenty of passive voice (“is obligated,” “it is recommended that.”) And it’s written at a 10th grade reading level.

The experimenters substituted a simpler, modified letter that looks like this:

We need your help. [STUDENT NAME]’s absences from school are concerning, and your partnership is critical. Students who miss just one or two days of school each month can fall seriously behind. 

[STUDENT NAME] is now “truant” because [SHE/HE] missed school (or was more than 30 minutes late) without a valid excuse on: 

Thursday, September 12, 2015 
Thursday, September 19, 2015 
Thursday, September 27, 2015 

Being absent can lead to doing poorly in school. Students who miss many days of school are more likely to: 

  • Fail their classes 
  • Drop out from high school 
  • Have poor relationships with parents and teachers 

We are required by [STATE] law to send you this letter and to warn you of the consequences of additional unexcused absences (see sidebar). 

Please remember that every absence matters and just a couple days each month adds up. You are key to improving [STUDENT NAME]’s attendance. 


Principal X 

This was followed by the legally mandated list of consequences in smaller print (the “sidebar”).

Why is this better?

It starts with “We need your help,” which is more likely to get parents to read on. It also clearly sets out the goal in the first sentence: Help us.

It’s shorter. That makes people more likely to read it.

It puts the student’s name in the second sentence, which will effectively grab the parent’s attention, distinguishing this letter from the generic notices we all receive every day.

It lists easily understood consequences (failing classes, dropping out, poor teacher relationships) rather than formalized legal threats.

It’s written to be understood at a 4th grade level.

In the study, the researchers randomized 131,312 truancy letters. The shorter, clearer, simpler letters were 40% more effective in reducing truancy.

Rethink your written communication

If you’re sending notices like this intended to create action, then you should take the time to improve them. You’re likely to see better results, just as the school district did.

Make sure you:

  • Make your desired action clear in the first two sentences.
  • Remove as many words as possible.
  • Replace jargon with clear language.
  • Write in active, not passive, voice, so the letter’s recipient can see what they’re supposed to do.
  • Do A/B testing to see which versions of the letter work best.

Marketers do this all the time. If you’re in customer service, education, legal, or other parts of your organization, you may not have the same imperative to improve your communication. But that’s no excuse to play hooky with this obligation.

Examine your communications. Improve them. Clear writing generates results.

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One Comment

  1. When I saw my ex-employer’s horribly written policies, I shuddered. Ditto for the vast majority of my colleagues’ class materials and syllabi. When I tried to improve them, I faced considerable resistance. We need better written policies.