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"...But can they read and write?" (promoting literacy)

Joan Mclaughlin was shocked to learn that 30 percent of her staff couldn't read and write well enough to use a new computerized menu system.

McLaughlin, director of nutrition and food services at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said, "People had functioned so well in their jobs and gotten by for many years.

Getting by is no longer enough. Today's work places demand higher levels of literacy than ever before. In the work place and in the community, people need the basic skills of reading, writing and simple math daily. These skills are necessary to:

* Read signs, brochures, newsletters, training manuals and health and safety information,

* write memos and complete forms,

* use computers to find information, fill orders and make appointments.

ou may design and produce many of these materials. If you are aware of the literacy levels of your audiences -- for instance, by holding focus groups or testing your written material with a few readers -- you can more effectively design the best tools to communicate with these audiences. In fact, everyone benefits when you produce clear written material that is easy and fast to read.

International Adult Literacy

Once defined as the ability to sign one's own name, literacy now encompasses the ability not only to read, but also to use all types of written information to meet everyday demands.

A 1995 study of adults in seven industrialized countries revealed that literacy is not an issue only in developing countries.

The first International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), a collaborative effort by seven governments and three intergovernment organizations, uncovered a serious literacy problem in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. It measured literacy across national, language and cultural lines.

More than 40 percent of the more than 20,000 adults in the countries surveyed, other than the Netherlands and Sweden, scored on the lowest two levels (out of five) when tested for their abilities to read text, locate and use written information and do simple math.

The table at left indicates the combined averages of the three areas of literacy tested: prose literacy (reading text), document literacy (locating and using information) and quantitative literacy (applying written arithmetic operations).

With global competition and the rapid introduction of new technologies, nations and organizations need literate work forces. "Literacy is thought to be a powerful determinant of a country's innovative and adaptive capacity," reports the IALS Highlight Summary on its Web page ( Documents/English/MediaRe1/IALS).

Low literacy levels affect organizations and their ability to communicate with customers and potential customers, donors, clients, patients and employees.

What can communicators do about this?

Clear Language and Design

As professionals who work daily with the written and spoken word, communicators hold the key to present messages in ways that can be best understood by the largest number of people. Consider the literacy levels of various audiences when you write, or when you plan communication strategies and choose your communication tools.

The first and most powerful tool is the use of clear language -- or plain language -- as it is often called.

When you use clear language, you clarify your writing by eliminating unnecessary words and jargon. Says Mariann Lawrie, communication officer at St. Michaels Hospital, "There's a lot of jargon in the medical world. My job is to bust that jargon and use plain language." She communicates with internal audiences of all literacy levels, many of whom speak English as a second language. Lawrie says using clear language means that everyone gets the message.

Clear language guidelines recommend you keep words, sentences and paragraphs simple and short. By giving information in a clear and concise way, the reader will more likely understand it. For example:

Before clear language: All decisions about the dispensation of subsidies for outside education will be the prerogative of the president's office.

After clear language: The president will decide whether the company will pay for your outside courses.

The design of written materials also affects readability. For audiences with limited reading abilities, designers should use a simple format with plenty of white space, advises Gordon W E. Nore, author of "Clear Lines: How to Compose and Design Clear Language Documents for the Workplace." Too few or inappropriate graphics, too many font styles and sizes, and too many features (such as underlining and shadows) can confuse the reader.

Clear Language Benefits Everyone

Clear language lets you communicate with a wider market and saves time and money. When communication is clear, less staff time is needed to explain wordy or confusing directions, correct poorly filled-in forms and answer questions.

When manuals and instructions are clear, staff training becomes more effective. Direct mail fund-raising pitches are more likely to reach a wider audience. And clients with a range of reading abilities will more easily understand clear newsletters and brochures.

"I don't think an industry knows how much money they can save and how many people they could reach if they used clear language," says Cheryl Agoston, president of Plain Language Services in Toronto.

Challenging skeptics who fear that clear language is dull and speaks down to readers, Agoston says clear language actually gives more sparkle to your writing.

In fact, audiences of all reading levels benefit from clear writing claims Priya Souza, sales support coordinator at Walsh Canada, a pharmaceutical marketing and research company. She says even with a literate audience such as physicians, companies have to come up with a distinct message that's short, straightforward and simple. "Physicians don't have time to wade through lengthy product descriptions to figure out if they want further information."

And there's an urgency for clear language on the Internet. If your messages are not short and sweet, viewers -- even seasoned ones -- will surf right over you.

Do a Literacy Audit

By identifying literacy barriers in your organization and taking steps to minimize them, you can reach more people.

To audit how literacy-sensitive your organization is, ask these questions:

* Does your organization consider people's literacy levels when it communicates with internal and external audiences or delivers goods and services?

* Does it have a clear language policy?

* Does it produce internal and external information, educational materials and forms that are clear and easy to read?

* Does it use a variety of communication tools to augment the written word?

* Does it provide staff training on clear writing and design?

* Does it consult with literacy agencies and its audiences on content, style and design of written materials, as well as on literacy needs?

Ask Your Audiences

Your audiences can best tell you whether you're communicating clearly. If you're redesigning a form, planning a training session or publishing a new information brochure, hold a focus group to see if the level of writing matches the reading abilities of the target audiences.

Augment this with a readibility test, such as the Fry index, to gauge the educational level of your writing. Contact your local library for information on readability tests, or check your word processing software for built-in testing abilities.

Vary Your Communication Tools

You can design other communication tools to augment or replace written information. McLaughlin has changed the way she communicates since the literacy assessment in her department.

She communicates verbally more often and chooses simple words for written material. At staff meetings, she uses audiovisual materials and plenty of examples when introducing new work systems.

Use slide presentations, symbols (such as safety symbols), radio announcements, television campaigns and face-to-face verbal instruction to get your messages across.

Set Up a Work Place Literacy Program

If you suspect the staff in your organization has a wide range of literacy levels, set up a partnership with a local school or literacy organization for an assessment. Consider a work-place program to help people upgrade their basic skills.

St. Michael's developed such a program with the help of its local school board. The basic skills classes have helped the food services department successfully implement new, more efficient work systems.

For information on work-place literacy contact your local government, library or community literacy organization, or check out the Web sites listed on the opposite page.

Set Up a Literacy Committee

Consider setting up a literacy committee in your local IABC chapter. IABC's International Communicators for Literacy Action Program is designed to be flexible so that IABC members and chapters can get involved where it makes most sense to them and where they think they can do the most good. The Literacy handbook, available from IABC, can help your committee set goals and objectives. (Contact the Customer Service Centre at +01 (415) 433-3400 to order the handbook.)

The Literacy Challenge

No single approach will solve the problems of illiteracy. As communicators, you can do your part by tackling literacy issues within your work places and communities. You can write clearly and challenge your own organizations to be literacy-sensitive.

You can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution.
COPYRIGHT 1996 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Agger, Ellen
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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