Know Your Readers
Literacy and the reading habits are of major importance in communicating with your audience. A document may be "plain" for one set of readers and not for others. Writers often wrongly assume that their audience is of the same class of readers.They are often surprised to learn that very large numbers of readers cannot read what they have written.
The first literacy surveys in the U.S. done in 1935, showed that the average reader was an adult of limited reading ability. At that time, when the average reading level was 7.8, equivalent to readers in the eighth month of the seventh year in school. The reading levels have remained consistently the same over the years, showing slight improvement each year.
The National Adult Literacy Survey in 1992 and 2003 showed the following results:
The results show the average adult reads at the 9th-grade level. This accounts for the fact that the popular blockbuster novels are written at the 7th grade level. People like to read recreationally two grades below their actual reading skill. The average newspaper is written at the 11th-grade level, the tolerable limit for a 9th-grade reader.
Impact of Illiteracy
Some 14 percent (30 million) of adults in the U.S. are functioning at Below Basic, defined simply as "not having adequate reading skills for daily life." These are people who cannot read, must struggle to read, or cannot cope with unfamiliar or complex information. Those with BelowBasic reading skills cannot:
- Understand the instructions on a medicine container
- Read stories to their children
- Read a newspaper article or a map
- Read correspondence from their bank or any government agency
- Fill out an application for work
- Read the safety instructions for operating machinery
- Compete effectively for today's jobs
Forty-three percent of adults with low literacy skills live in poverty, 17% receive food stamps, and 70% have no job or part-time job. Over 60 % of front-line workers in the goods-producing sector have difficulty applying information from a text to a required task.
More than 20% of adults read at or below the fifth-grade level, far below the level needed to earn a living wage. Adults at Level 1 earned a median income of $240 per week, compared to $681 for those at Level 5. Seventy percent of prisoners are in the two lowest levels. The number of companies reporting shortages of skilled workers doubled between 1995 to 1998. Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives reported that low literacy is hurting productivity and profitability.
The studies show that low literacy is not primarily the problem of immigrants, the elderly, high-school dropouts, or people whose first language is not English. Low literacy is a problem that knows no age, education, economic boundaries, or national origins. Most people with low literacy skills were born in this country or have English as their first language.
It does no good to complain that "the schools are not doing their job." Over 80% of the year 2000 workforce are already out of school. It is a problem that industry, schools, health providers, churches, libraries, and public agencies must address aggressively. In fact, in spite of continuing cuts in school budgets, reading scores have continued to rise, even in inner-city schools.
Get the Grade Level Right
When people pick up something they cannot understand, they put it down, call support, or go do something else, often without reflecting on what just happened. Such results mark a complete failure of communication, a waste of money mounting to billions of dollars yearly.
All agencies, companies, and organizations have an enormous stake in the problem of limited literacy. It does no good to write in plain, clear language if it is written at the wrong grde level. Too many government Web sites, legal notices, health and safety information, and other crucial documents are often written at a level too difficult for a large the population.
For these reasons, experts recommend writing documents intended for the general public at the 9th-grade level, health and safety information at the 5th-grade level. Knowing the average reading level of your audience, however, is not the same as writing for that audience. That takes study, practice, and discipline. It is very difficult to write for a class of readers not one's own. One must become aware of the reading habits and the types of documents with which your audience is familiar. Go see the training manual, Working with Plain Language.
For more ideas and resources about literacy, check out the following:
- Google's Literacy Project: http://www.google.com/literacy/
- State Literacy Resource Center: http://www.literacynet.org/slrc/slrchome.html
- Canadian National Literary Secretariat: http://www.nald.ca/nls.htm
- National Association for Family Literacy: http://www.famlit.org/
| William H. DuBay
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