How plain English can help when education hasn’t

Image, Hand holding a globe.

Plain English writing can open a world of information for struggling readers. Image by geralt / CC0

Words, so the cynic Tallyrand suggested, are given us to conceal our thoughts. That certainly seems to be the case with the official response to the recent results of the OECD survey of adult skills. New Zealand adults are among the most literate in the OECD, we’re told, and we’ve improved our ranking against other nations from twelfth to fourth.

Which sounds really positive, except a close look at the data suggests:

This has implications for adult literacy efforts. It also has huge implications for you if you’re writing reports, forms, web content, letters, health and safety guides, or other information for New Zealanders.

The OECD survey tests literacy, numeracy and problem solving

The survey uses a set of tasks to establish its ratings. A rating of ‘3’ (out of 5) means the person is competent in literacy and numeracy. A competent person can:

  1. navigate a dense document to find information, and answer questions based on that information
  2. understand and answer questions that require them to interpret data using a knowledge of arithmetic or spatial relationships.

So our mythical person could read a financial report that had a sensible layout, an appropriate vocabulary, and all the information needed to interpret the data.

The OECD also tested for problem solving in technology-rich environments. In this test, a rating of ‘2’ (out of 3) means the person is competent in following a standard process that has specific steps to do a defined task.

Our scores are dismal

In literacy, New Zealanders had an average score just above the boundary of the ‘competent’ category. In numeracy, we’re just under the boundary between ‘competent’ and ‘struggling’. And 45.3% of adult New Zealanders rated 0 or 1 for problem solving in a technology-rich environment.

How can plain English help?

Something written in plain English is easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to act on for the intended audience. In plain English writing, the writer does the work to take the navigation, comprehension, and interpretation tasks from level 3 or above down to level 2.

Techniques include:

Interpreting numbers with case studies and examples is also useful. Using such techniques might widen your audience by as much as 30 or 40 percent.

For the widest reach, use other strategies too

You’ll also need other strategies to reach the Kiwis with the lowest literacy and numeracy. For example, consider well-written video or audio.

As you might expect, some parts of the population struggle more than others. If you’re preparing a text, consider whether you need to take account of age, ethnicity, education, or social differences.

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2 responses to “How plain English can help when education hasn’t”

  1. Chrissy Parker says:

    Surely Spelling reform would help literacy.

    • judyknighton says:

      Chrissy, if you could get everyone to agree on a simpler form of spelling it might help until pronunciation drifted away from spelling again. English spelling is a horror.

      The ‘if’ is huge.

      First, who would mandate it? English has no central authority to decide that spelling should be reformed. Noah Webster had some impact back in the early 19th Century, but only in the United States, and only because he was the compiler of a hugely popular dictionary at a time when a single book could become an authority. Samuel Johnston used the same mechanism 50 years earlier in England.

      Second, if spelling is to be changed so that the word is spelled the way it sounds, whose accent will rule? Or will we have different spellings in different places? You say tomato and I say t’mayto?

      Thank you for your great comment, which set me thinking!

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