Debra Huron is a plain language specialist with a degree in journalism, and she spent three years managing the Canadian Public Health Association’s Plain Language Service. She shared with us some adult literacy statistics and gave us tools to create clear communications that will help low-literacy readers understand and high-literacy readers save time. A free PDF of her booklet, Five Ways to Create the Happiest Readers, is available on her website.
Huron began her session by asking us to read through a two-page financial services letter packed with long, complex sentences and bureaucratese. “From an editor’s point of view,” she said, “it’s perfectly grammatical. The sentences are long, but they’re coherent.” Yet the letter was hard to read and buried the call to action. “What I thought when I first read this letter,” said Huron, “was, ‘I need to read this again.’ It requires a high degree of analysis.”
Those of us in the room were likely strong readers, but many Canadians are not. Huron showed us the results of a 2013 survey, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which ranked Canada eleventh in prose and literacy skills, behind the Czech Republic and Estonia. The survey also found that 49 percent of Canadians had low literacy, meaning they read at level 1 or 2 in the OECD’s definition of literacy levels. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “Level 3 is the internationally accepted level of literacy required to cope in a modern society.” Huron cautioned us about using the correct terminology: we talk about low literacy, rather than illiteracy, because most people have some ability to read and write.
Who has low literacy skills? Huron worked with a national literacy organization in Ottawa helping adult learners improve their literacy. These learners may have grown up with violence or substance misuse in the home—not in an environment that valued literacy. Some people in their forties had learning disabilities that schools didn’t routinely test for when they were children.
People with low literacy do not read for pleasure. They read when they have to learn or do something. These adult learners have normal intelligence, so the term “dumbing down” is pejorative. Communicating with them may have to involve other media, including audiovisual material or activities to promote experiential learning. Huron reminded us that we can be literate in some circumstances and not so literate in others. Financial jargon and legalese can be particularly problematic.
Huron offered us four basic plain writing tips that can help you make your communications more clear:
- Prefer the active voice.
- Avoid frozen verbs (nominalizations). Don’t turn verbs into nouns.
- Organize your text into chunks.
- Reduce or define jargon.
These suggestions are a great starting point for the uninitiated, but writers and editors with more plain language experience understand that there are qualifications to these tips. Great sources of information for evidence-based plain language practice include Karen Schriver’s work (see my summary of her PLAIN 2013 talk) and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (which I reviewed). These summaries from previous conference sessions about adult readers and plain language may also help: