resources. sequel talks.

27 April 2016

Is literacy changing?

Figures on UK literacy rates make depressing reading – but hey, at least we can read them.

Recent tests show that 16 to 24-year-olds in England are near the bottom in the industrialised world for literacy and numeracy. A study of 24 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) placed England 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy.

The OECD study shows that around 16 per cent of adults in England are have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. That brings to mind the newspaper reporters’ adage that you should aim all your copy at the reading level of the average 10-year-old.

The study also showed that young people in England are no better at these tests than older people. In fact, when factors such as the socio-economic background of test subjects are taken into account, older people perform slightly better – making England one of the few countries where results are getting worse.

Meanwhile, a Cambridge University report concluded that Labour’s £500 million school literacy strategy was unsuccessful, as reading skills are no better than they were in the 1950s.

To be fair, it does depend on which study you look at: in the 2013 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies England rated above Denmark, France, Germany and the US. But the worldwide picture is depressing with averages in just seven countries (none in the UK) reaching basic literacy standards.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study of 10-year-olds showed England’s score had dropped 13 points since 2001. A drop in literacy standards from the brighter children contributed most to the fall. Apparently a third of children now read for pleasure daily while the same number of 10-year-olds play computer games for more than three hours a day.

It’s not just about books. The latest studies recognise that much reading is done online and test people on how well they can find information. It seems that many people worldwide can’t work out which link on a website will let them find an organisation’s phone number, even where there’s a ‘contact us’ button.

Of course we should be worried if young people don’t have the literacy skills to find basic information. Reading helps us make sense of the world and for many of us is a huge pleasure. We want our children to know the quiet joy of curling up with a book and getting lost in a story.

But because young people are not so able – or maybe just unwilling – to read novels does it mean they are illiterate? Could it be that literacy is changing, not just declining? After all, young people read all the time; does the fact that it’s text messages and Facebook make it less valid?

In the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy Paul Brock say literacy has always been contentious. He quotes a newspaper of 1909 bemoaning modern teaching methods that are failing children, lowering achievement and making them less employable.

What does all this mean for internal communications? How can you reach an audience whose attention span is falling – or so the perceived wisdom goes – and whose reading skills are sadly lacking?

Should we as communicators adapt to suit them? The answer would seem to be yes. If we want our messages to be read, they must be written in a way that people want to read. As internal communicators we’ve already changed the way we write for digital and online publications, adapting our style to be read on phones and social media.

We’re using more pictures and video and as the cry goes up for fewer words and more visuals we’re scripting comic strip-style content to entice readers.

Any good communicator knows the importance of simple writing. It doesn’t mean your copy will read like an infant’s picture book but will be clear and concise, as championed by the estimable Plain English campaign.

But is dumbing down too much bad for literacy in the long run? Is it also our place to educate and to keep language alive? Shouldn’t we offer a few well placed challenges too?

Those of us who love words mourn the disappearance of familiar phrases. We used to stand back at the station to allow passengers to ‘alight from the train’; now they just  now ‘get off’. Are we going to lose words if we don’t use them? We can use the occasional lesser known word and explain what it means. And we can encourage people to read more by offering things they really want to read.

We must recognise that literacy rates in developed countries are much lower than many communicators realise and write accordingly, but we can do that with clarity and style.

We can also encourage our clients to play their part. Every job has its own language and employers should make sure that their staff have a good grasp of the words that are bandied about the company. Everyone from every part of the business should understand what’s being said in all forms of communication, all the time.