Who Reads?

National literacy surveys tell us how well our audience reads—or doesn't.

Since 1985, the U.S. government has been conducting surveys of the reading skills of its citizens. In 1985, the Young Adult Literacy Survey found that only 40 percent of young adults 17 to 25 and no longer in high school, and 17 years old and in high school read at a 12th-grade level. The 1990 census that followed showed that 24.8% of adults did not graduate from high school.

In 1992, the government conducted a much larger National Adult Literacy Survey. The number sampled represented 191 million people 16 years old and over. This survey showed that the average American reads at the 7th-grade level.

It also showed that 21%, roughly 40 million adults in the U.S., have reading skills below the 3rd-grade level. They are defined as "functionally illiterate, not having enough reading skills for daily life."

Some 50 million more adults, 27%, have reading skills below the 5th grade. In some areas, almost 50% of American adults struggle with reading skills far below the level needed to earn a living wage.

So What?

The report confirmed that adults of different reading skills not only have different worldviews but also different life experiences. 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 frontline workers producing goods have difficulty applying information from a text to a task.

In support of these figures, the number of companies reporting shortages of skilled workers doubled between 1995 and 1998. Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives reported that low literacy is hurting productivity and profitability. In one survey, more than half of the responding company representatives said that high school graduates applying for jobs are not literate enough to hire.

The National Academy on an Aging Society examined the impact of literacy on the use of health care services. The study found that people with low health-literacy skills use more health care services. Among adults who stayed overnight in a hospital, those with low health literacy skills averaged 6 percent more hospital visits, and stayed in the hospital nearly 2 days longer than adults with higher health literacy skills. The added health-care costs of low literacy are estimated at $73 billion in 1998 dollars. This total is about what Medicare pays for doctor services, dental services, home health care, prescription drugs, and nursing-home care combined.

Low literacy is not chiefly 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, income levels, or national origins. Most people with low literacy skills were born in this country and speak English as their first language.

What is the Solution?

One solution to the problem of low literacy of adults is workplace literacy programs, which have the most cost-effective and lasting results.

Another solution is to write more texts that address audiences of different reading skills. People will read and improve their reading skills if they have access to materials written at their level. Without those materials, they stop reading.

There is a great lack of materials written for intermediate (average) adult readers. Millions of them would like to know more about science, history, technology, current affairs, health care, and the like. The magazines and other publications that cover such subjects are not written at their level.

By adopting a plain-language program, organizations can meet such requirements and reach a much larger audience. WHD

Terms of Use: An Industry in Crisis

You would think that financial firms after the Enron scandals would be doing everything to win back customer confidence, things like learning to communicate clearly. Think again. The "plain-language" statements ordered by the Security and Exchange Commission still read like something from outer space. Not even Warren Buffett can read them. The legal notices called Terms of Use found on the bottom of financial Web pages are even worse.

Terms of Use usually start with a warning like this: "By using this site, you agree to these terms of use." They go on to say that, from time to time, there are changes to the Terms of Use. It is your responsibility to review them each time you log on.

If you are lucky, you might find something useful in there, like this: "Information on this Web site may not be accurate or up-to-date. If you are thinking of making a financial decision based on information you find here, please consult a financial professional first. Financial markets are always risky. Past performance does not guarantee the results you want."

Usually, however, you will find pages and pages of product and warranty disclaimers written in dense legal prose. The Merrill Lynch Terms of Use goes on for almost 20 pages. An example:

Unless a Product is exempt from filing with, or authorization, approval, registration or qualification by, a governmental authority or regulatory agency under the law and regulations in each jurisdiction in which the Product is offered, any required documentation has been or will be filed in compliance with applicable law and regulations. We may not sell Products that are required to be approved, registered or otherwise qualified until the necessary approvals, registrations or qualifications have been obtained or are deemed effective.

There is no mystery why the Terms of Use are so badly written. It is not the company's fear of liability. If that were the case, a clear and easy-to-read notice would stand up much better in court. Bad language, instead, is more the result of company policy. Each organization has its own writing culture and requirements. You cannot improve its language without improving its "community of discourse."

This means training managers how to handle the writing of others, how to edit, analyze, and explain. But even such training will not be useful or last very long without a commitment by the top levels of management. They must communicate to every level of the organization not only that clear writing is important, but also that it must and will be done. WHD

Plain Language in the News

Privacy notices not working?

USA Today on doctor-patient language gap:

Study of car-seat instructions:

Consent-form research in New Zealand:

Uninformed Consent of Heart Patients:

Plain Language Training in U.K.: http://tinyurl.com/3nzuo4x