Literacy: 43% of your readers may miss your message

Try reading this:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!

(From Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll)

How much did you understand?

If your answer is ‘not much’, you’re in the same shoes as about 12% of your readers. And 31% more may miss the finer details of what you have to say. That’s a total of 43%.

Literacy levels in New Zealand (002)

Plain language techniques will reach your readers

Most of your writers probably read at level 4 or 5. But they can’t assume they are writing for peers.

They can use techniques for writing in plain language to write your messages plainly. Carefully crafted, information can be widely readable, meet your audiences’ needs, and provide all the relevant detail. Here are some tips.

  • Use the most familiar, simplest forms of words. Say ‘buy’, for example, rather than ‘purchase’.
  • Don’t leave it to the reader to make assumptions. ‘Join the dots’ to give a complete message.
  • Leave out non-essential information. Or use the inverted pyramid structure to put it later in the piece of writing. Don’t confuse the main message.
  • Consider your audience. What language do they speak at home? What qualifications are they likely to have? How old are they? The survey evaluates literacy by ethnicity, age, and socioceconomic position. You can too. Personas — sketches of people that represent groups within your audience — are useful. They help you target your message to the people who need it.
  • Use a plain language standard as a checklist. A document that ticks all the boxes will meet the needs of almost all your readers. You’ll find a plain language standard in Part 5 of Rewrite — it’s on page 252. It’s also available as a notepad to use as a checklist for each document you write.

New Zealand literacy has improved in the past 20 years

Writers must be aware of their readers’ literacy skills. But we can all celebrate New Zealand’s improvements in literacy overall.

A report by MBIE says New Zealand is now ranked fourth for literacy in the OECD (the 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). Japan, Finland, and the Netherlands are ahead of us, and we’re tied with Australia and Sweden.

New Zealand literacy has significantly improved since 1996, the second-to-last survey.

The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies surveys OECD countries to produce these figures.

We’ve taken the New Zealand figures from the report Skills in New Zealand and around the World, published by MBIE in June 2016.