Plain Language Q & A

Notebook entry #6

For this week’s entry I have decided to go back to my first three notebook entries and answer some of the questions put to me by my Literacy Learning professor Dr. Susan Walsh.

Is plain language assumed to be neutral?

That depends on the document’s intended audience. The goal of plain language is for the person reading the document to understand it on first reading. If I’m writing a manual for Nova Scotia snowplough operators, I try to find as much out about them as I can and target my writing accordingly. So in that case, no, plain language is not neutral. If all the Nova Scotia snowplough operators are white males in their 50s who watch baseball in the summer, football in the fall, and hockey in the winter, then I can write to them and leave whole swaths of people out. I can use gendered pronouns and sports metaphors, and popular culture references going back to the ’70s. The document will be fairly easy to test as my audience is a small, almost homogeneous group.

The difficulty comes in writing for “the general public.” In my experience, these documents are mainly aimed at adults in Nova Scotia who are affected by a particular government service. And here I do try to be neutral. How?

  • Use language that is gender-neutral; avoid gendered pronouns and opt for the singular “they” or dispense with pronouns altogether.
  • Use the simplest terms possible and write in the active voice in order to reach the least literate in the target audience. In my experience, no one has ever complained that a document is too easy to read.
  • Use images such as illustrations, maps, charts, and comic strips if these will convey the message more clearly than words alone. The goal, again, is to reach those members of the audience who may have trouble with written text.
  • Test the document with a small group that is representative of the target audience and use their feedback to remove any barriers to understanding.

Who is “the general public” and to what extent is this (seemingly) homogeneous entity actually raced, classed, gendered in terms of literacy?

Often when I ask a client, usually workers in a government department, who the target audience for a particular project is, the response is, “the general public.” When I get this response, I know I am dealing with an audience that is definitely NOT homogeneous. For example, I am currently working on a new edition of the Nova Scotia Driver’s Handbook. For this project, I know a few things about my target audience:

  • They can be from any race and many users of this booklet will be new immigrants to Canada from countries with whom Nova Scotia has no reciprocal driver’s licence agreement. For many, English will be a second, third, or subsequent language.
  • Everyone in the audience plans to drive a vehicle in Nova Scotia, therefore they will have access to one but that does not mean that they own their own vehicle. A driver’s licence could be a condition of employment where the employee is expected to drive a company car.  So members of the audience can be from any “class.”
  • My audience is male and female.
  • All readers are 16 years of age or older as that is the minimum age allowed for a Nova Scotia learner’s permit. Since they can come from anywhere in the world, I do NOT assume that they are reading English at a Grade 10 level.

Is there an assumption that language is a vehicle for transporting ideas from one person to another in a neutral kind of way?

The short answer is  yes. In my work, the message comes from my client and is transported through my words and any images I suggest to the audience. As discussed above, there are ways to try to do this in a neutral way.

Who created the categories of readers referred to in Reflections on Literacy?

I had heard of these levels through working with Diane Macgregor, Communications Nova Scotia’s plain language specialist but I see that they bear a strong resemblance to the levels reported on in the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey  (IALS) conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada released in 2000 ( On this website, literacy is divided into 5 levels but levels 4 and 5 are merged as the site breaks down the Canadian population as follows:

  • “22% of Canadians are at level 1. People at this level have difficulty reading and have few basic skills or strategies for decoding and working with text. Generally, they are aware that they have a literacy problem.
  • 26% of Canadians are at level 2. These are people with limited skills who read but do not read well enough. Canadians at this level can deal only with material that is simple and clearly laid out. They often do not recognize their limitations.
  • 33% of Canadians are at level 3. They can read well but may have problems with more complex tasks. This level is considered by many countries to be the minimum for successful participation in society.
  • 20% of Canadians are at levels 4 or 5. People at these levels have strong literacy skills, including a wide range of reading skills and many strategies for dealing with complex materials. These Canadians can meet most reading demands and can handle new reading challenges.”

What are the complexities of labelling people as “good”/”poor” readers, etc.?

First, I don’t think individual adults should ever be labelled this way and that is not how plain language is used. However, tools like the IALS are helpful when we design documents that are intended to give information to a wide range of people. It is useful to know that a certain segment of the population has such difficulty reading and working with written text that we might abandon that method of transmitting information in favour of offering videos for example. This was done by the Nova Scotia government during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. At immunization centres across the province people were required to watch a short video that explained the risks and benefits of the vaccine. Someone in government must have realized that handing printed brochures to people containing the same information would not constitute informed consent in the same way that the video would. It is also helpful to know that most of us, particularly when dealing with information outside our own area of expertise, fall within the 81 per cent of  Canadians  with less than “strong literacy skills” rather than the 20 per cent who seem to be able to handle everything.

In reference to legalese, medicalese, etc., would you agree that is is what [Judith] Baker calls “professional language”?

No. In my first post, when I said “Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else … [and that] the same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government,” I meant that the language is less about the necessary words and phrases for doing the job and conveying meaning and more about the comfort that comes from using jargon and convoluted sentence structure as a show of belonging to a particular privileged group. To me, professional language, as Baker used the term, is a mechanic saying “carburetor” to refer to that particular part of a vehicle as that is the correct name. Often lawyers, doctors and other professionals move beyond precise terminology to elevate their own speech and writing. For example,

  • legalese -“Compensation will be in the amount of $100,000.00 per annum.”  instead of “You will be paid $100,000.00 a year.”
  • medicalese – signs in hospitals would be more helpful if they read “kidney care” instead of “nephrology.”

How do [Judith] Baker’s and [Lisa] Delpit’s articles relate to plain language work?

I think Baker and Delpit are practising a kind of plain language in their work by reaching their students in the language that those students use on a daily basis. From here, Baker and Delpit bring their students to “standard English” and allow them to find the contexts in which to use it.

We have to remember that we all benefit from plain language.  As the IALS shows, 81 per cent of the Canadian population has less than “strong literacy skills.” Almost 50 per cent have ” difficulty reading and have few basic skills” or “limited skills who read but do not read well enough.” Those who have strong literacy skills still benefit from “material that is simple and clearly laid out” because we aren’t always at the top of our game. We get tired. We get bored. We’re not motivated to digest the information being given to us. Plain language is about ensuring your audience understands your work on the first read and not putting up barriers to that understanding.

To quote Hippocrates, “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”

Know your audience and write accordingly

Notebook entry #5

I’ll admit I had a little trouble with the latest assigned reading for my Literacy Learning class. It was Feminist Post-Structuralism by Carmen Luke published in Literacy in America: An encyclopedia of history, theory, and practice (Vol.2) edited by B. Guzzetti.  I read it twice. I think I got something out of it. But mostly, I was frustrated at the dense language and the amount of assumed knowledge contained in the text. So, I decided to look at it from a plain language perspective.

One of the first things I ask when I take on a plain language project is: Who is the audience? I want as much information about the end users of my document as possible. How old are they? How much formal education do they have? How much time do they spend reading? What do they read for pleasure? What words do they use in day-to-day speech?

Since I can’t ask Luke these questions. I thought I would try to deduce her target audience from the language used in the article.

One of the ways I did this was to run the first section of the article, approximately 220 words, through two online readability tools. Both use a variety of readability formulas including the  Flesch Kincaid Grade Level.

Here’s what plain language expert William Lutz, Professor Emeritus of English at Rutgers University had to say about this readability formula:

“The Flesch Readability Index is expressed as a school grade, such as 5 meaning the fifth grade. The grade level means that readers at that grade level are at the limit of their reading ability and could just cope with the text. The Flesch Readability Index is based on a 50 percent correct answer score on a comprehension test of the text being assessed. Thus, a grade 5 reading level means that readers at that grade level would score only 50 percent correct on a comprehension test, while a grade 16 reading level means that college graduates would score 50 percent on a comprehension test of the material.” (p. 4 of an affidavit Lutz gave in American Council of Life Insurers, et al. v. Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities, and Healthcare Administration, et al.)

The portion of Luke’s article that I ran through the two online readability scorers, Text Readability Scores on AddedBytes and The Readability Test Tool showed the text to be at about a grade 17 reading level. Thus, according to Lutz, a university graduate would score 50 per cent on a comprehension test of the document. From that, I assume that Luke intended the article for people with more than one university degree.

In looking up the publication the article was published in, I found this: “With its 400 entries researched by experts and written in accessible prose, Literacy in America is the only reference tool students, teachers, and parents need to understand what it means to be and to become literate in 21st century America.” (

So, my assumption was wrong. This article, by virtue of its inclusion in this book is intended for students, teachers, and parents. I know for a fact that not every parent of the children who attend the same school as my children has a university degree. I’m guessing that the number of parents with university degrees depends largely on where the school is located.

Readability scores are only one way to examine a document. They can result in documents scoring at grade levels above that of their intended audience because of long but necessary words which may be explained within the text.

So let’s look at another way of finding out whether Luke’s article is likely to be easily read and understood by the target audience, particularly students and parents: are unfamiliar terms well explained?

Ideally, we’d have to poll a group of students and parents to find out what the unfamiliar terms are, but since I can’t do that, I’ll use my own experience in reading the article.

My first difficulty came in the first sentence: “Post-structuralism is commonly associated with the work of French theorist Michel Foucault.” (187) I have a degree in political science and another in journalism but I have never heard of Michel Foucault. Perhaps I didn’t take the right courses in university. So … off I go to the Internet to find out who he is.

Then I learn that feminist post-structuralism “has its intellectual roots partly in ‘French’ feminism” (187) followed by a list of names of people I’ve never heard of. Also, I’m distracted by the quotation marks around the word, “French.” Were these people not really French? Were they pretending to be French? Why? No explanation. In fact, within the first 200 words of the article I am given the names of 13 people I’ve never heard of with the only explanation being that they were either taking a feminist view of Foucault’s work (I didn’t really delve into this. It seemed pretty complicated) or they used “dominant structuralist paradigms in the social sciences.” (188) Now I have to look up structuralist and paradigm. These aren’t words I come across everyday.

There were plenty of difficult words in this text. Some of them wouldn’t even come across as difficult in a readability formula. Like “telos,” as in “the telos of progressive accounts of history.” (188) My spell-checker doesn’t even regard this as a word. It doesn’t exist on which asks me if I mean “tell,” or “trellis,” or “talon” or one of 37 other options. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary definition of “telos” is “an ultimate object or aim” but when I read “the ultimate object or aim of progressive accounts of history,” I still don’t understand.

Now, because I am a graduate student and I have been assigned this reading, I am motivated to dig deep into the text to find the message the author is trying to convey.

I definitely would not try that hard as a parent who wants to understand what it means to be and to become literate in the 21st century. I’d probably stop reading by the end of the first paragraph, dismissing it as too much work.

So what have we learned? Either my first assumption was correct and the article is indeed intended for an audience of people, not only with more than one university degree, but degree in subjects that would make them familiar with all the names and terms contained in the article. Or, the author did not know that the intended audience included students and parents who may not be familiar with these terms and names.

In either case, I still don’t think this article meets the plain language test. That’s because of another thing Lutz said in his affidavit: “Since a person’s normal reading level is not the same as his highest level of education, people usually read three to five grades lower than their highest level of education.” (4)

This gets a little difficult when we get beyond grade 12 but, for the sake of this blog post, let’s just add a grade level for every year of university. A graduate of a regular 4-year university undergraduate program should be reading at a grade 11 to grade 13 level. That’s grade 16 minus the 3 to 5 grade levels Lutz says most people read and it’s 4 grades below that at which Luke’s text is written. And that’s for a university graduate.

But  what if not all university graduates read at this level? The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police website, Literacy and the Police: Target Crime with Literacy,  states that “42 of [every] 100 working-age adults in Canada has lower literacy than is needed to cope with the increasing information demands of our society.” Further, that 2.6 million Canadians with low literacy skills have post-secondary education.

They’re not talking about the ability to read a text like Luke’s here. They’re talking about the ability to get through the amount of information we see in our daily lives. I’m guessing there are a lot of parents in this group.

Does “standard” English perpetuate inequality?

Notebook entry #4 2011-10-09

It’s been almost 100 years since George Bernard Shaw published his play, Pygmalion. In it, Shaw sends up British society by changing a woman’s class simply by changing the way she speaks and dresses. Cockney Liza Doolittle is destined to live forever in an unheated tenement making a meager living selling flowers until Professor Henry Higgins decides to use her in an experiment. He bet that he could change her destiny through “phonetics,” teaching her the “correct” way to speak English.

How is that different from what some in literacy are doing today? As Lisa Delpit does when she says, “All we can do is provide students with the exposure to an alternate form, and allow them the opportunity to practice that form in contexts that are nonthreatening, have a real purpose, and are intrinsically enjoyable. If they have access to alternative forms, it will be their decision later in life to choose which to use. We can only provide them with the knowledge base and hope they will make appropriate [emphasis mine] choices.” (Language Diversity and Learning in Beyond heroes and holidays: A practical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural education and staff development, Lee, E., Menkart, D, and Okazawa-Rey, M.N. eds p. 157)

Isn’t this the Henry Higgins school of thought? OK, maybe it’s progressed a bit. In a preface to Pygmalion, Shaw makes no secret of the fact that he believes that there is one way to speak English and all other ways are wrong: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like.” ( Delpit, on the other hand, respects the language her students come to school with and uses it to teach them, or make available to them, alternate forms of speech including that of the dominant culture.  But the end appears to be the same; only a certain form of English is acceptable to those who hold the keys to power and success. Learn to use this language and you will get ahead. Shaw may simply have seen that as learning to speak English correctly, while Delpit sees it as using an accepted form.

But if everyone learns to speak and write like those in the dominant culture while maintaining their “home” languages, what is gained and what is lost? Aren’t we still accepting the “systemic form of inequality” inherent in the language we speak? (Andersen and Hill Collins p. 61)

Because language (or at least accent and dialect), in my view, is as much a systemic form of inequality  as race, class, and gender  as stated by by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins in Systems of Power and Inequality published in Race, class, and gender: an anthology (p. 61)

If you don’t think so, try this: would Americans have elected to the presidency a man or woman who said: “Donch y’all be axin’ what yo’ country can do fo’ you. Ax what y’all can do fo’ yo’ country.”? Would such a saying have become famous and quoted 50 years after it was said? Would anyone who speaks like that even be elected to minor public office? Would they be promoted to higher levels of management?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

It goes on to say that such discrimination is allowed where it is intended to improve the “conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Note that while “national and ethnic origin” is present in the legislation, language is not. And, I wager, it never will be. Why? Because, as Shaw so aptly demonstrated almost 100 years ago, language can be learned. But there are two problems with this. One is pointed out by Shaw himself when he has Liza tell Higgins:  “You told me, you know, that when a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language in a few weeks, and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours.”

How long will it be before students who have mastered “standard” English forget their home languages? What is their perception of those who have not mastered the switch? Do they in turn become part of the dominant culture by virtue of their language? Is this a good thing?

The other problem is that the dominant culture gets to change what counts as “standard” English without warning. One who is new to the group, risks betraying their origins if they fail to keep up with the new lingo. So, not only is language a systemic form of inequality, it is one that is constantly being tailored to keep people out of the dominant group.

Disagree? Try this fun quiz. The following is a list of financial terms from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Jot down your best-guess definition. Then go to the Glossary of Financial Crisis Terms  on the bank’s website to see how well you did.

  • Asset-backed commercial paper
  • CDO squared
  • derivative
  • hedge fund
  • haircut
  • liar loan
  • moral hazard
  • repo
  • special purpose vehicles
  • tranche

As an added bonus, once you checked the definition, how easy was it to understand?

Reflections on Literacy

I started this blog as a way to promote myself as an independent plain language writer. But, like many first-time bloggers, I lacked the time, focus, and discipline to keep it going. What I do have is a basket-load of good intentions. I will complete the incomplete pages of this blog … someday … soon?

But, for now, I will use this space to fulfill a requirement of my first course in the Master’s of Education in Literacy program that I started just last week. My first course is Literacy Learning I taught by Dr. Susan Walsh. One of the requirements of this course is to keep a notebook, making entries once a week. In the notebook, and on this blog, I will “reconfigure [my] beliefs and understandings about what it means to be a teacher/learner of language and literacy.” The notebook entries must bring together at least two of the following:

  • required course materials (readings)
  • my own experiences with language and literacy
  • other reading resources or class work
  • at least one lecture from the MSVU Literacy as Ways of Knowing lecture series

Notebook entry #1 2011-09-19

For this entry, I will bring together the following:

I only began to think about literacy in the last five years when I began working as a plain language consultant. My work involved taking complex messages from government and turning them into language accessible to “the general public,” or a particular audience usually perceived as having lower literacy skills than the government workers with whom I contracted. Literacy, for me, was defined as the ability to read and understand a written document. From there I began to understand “the general public” as having various levels of literacy:

  • excellent readers – those who can read anything as long as it is written in an official language that they understand
  • good readers – those who can read most things but have some difficulty with complex texts
  • poor readers – those who can read if they work at it. They have a better understanding of documents written simply and clearly
  • non-readers – I would have called these people illiterate

What I discovered during my first class with Dr. Walsh was how narrowly I had defined literacy. I have always been considered to be someone with a flair for language. I learned to read before I went to school. In elementary school, I was moved out of my regular class to study Language Arts with the grade ahead of me. In university, my English professor asked me to major in the subject. I went on to work as a  journalist, and later, a freelance writer. By this time, I came to consider myself as pretty darn knowledgeable about the English language. But I walked into Literacy Learning I for the first time and learned that I didn’t know the basics: that there are six dimensions, I like to think of them  as three pairs of dimensions, of English Language Arts:

  • viewing and representing
  • listening and speaking
  • reading and writing

All this time I thought of literacy as reading. It was only very recently that I even considered writing as literacy. I have played with representing insofar as that can be done on paper, but that was the extent of it. I had never even thought of the remaining dimensions. That was my first eye-opener.

Then I read Friere’s The Importance of the Act of Reading and my eyes were opened further. Until I read it, I thought of reading as reading the written word – decoding letters and punctuation to find the meaning behind the symbols. But Friere begins by talking about reading the world. While he talks about it from his personal experience as a child in Brazil reading the world around him, I realized that we all read the world before we read the word, and we derive meaning from the things we see around us.

When I was a child, and my family had taken a day-trip somewhere in southern Ontario, a specific neon sign ( I don’t know what it said) against the night sky told me that I was close to home. I immediately felt warm and comfortable and usually fell asleep soon after seeing it and woke up in the driveway of my home. Likewise, after a long car trip, my own children see a tall building near MicMac Mall and know that home is near. If they have been bickering, they stop. For a few minutes, everyone in the car is quietly content.  What we saw in our minds was a sign that said: “You are almost home.” Until I read Friere, I never thought of those experiences as reading. Now I can’t stop thinking of all kinds of activities as reading:

  • infants read facial expressions before they read anything else
  • we are expected to read body language without anyone teaching us and we are judged harshly if we are unable to do so
  • long before there were meteorologists, farmers and fishermen read the weather
  • my brother-in-law can read space and instinctively know how one thing fits into another until he has built a shed, laid a floor, or installed a door

I agree wholeheartedly with Friere that we need to be able to read the world before we can truly read the word. We need some understanding of the world around us before we can see how that world is reflected in the squiggles on paper called writing.  The world and the word must meet. If they don’t, there can be no understanding.

Dr. Harste touched on this during his lecture when he said that children focus on what interests them. “If a kid can’t see himself in literacy, he’s not going to be literate,” Harste said.  Because my interest is in communicating important and complex messages to people deemed “less literate,” I took his message to heart. Somewhere along the way, too many people were missed on the road to literacy. For some reason, the lessons stopped resonating with them and they stopped seeing themselves in literacy.

Harste said something else during his lecture that also struck a chord with me. He said that if you want your child to sound like a teacher let him hang out with teachers and if you want your child to sound like a lawyer let him hang out with lawyers. His point was that we all learn the pragmatics of language, the rules of language use in a context, from that context. I believe this is true but that is has also become the bane of modern communication. Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else, which is why even the most literate among us have trouble deciphering legislation, regulation, and contracts. The same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government. All of whom have forgotten that the end users of their documents, “the general public,” need to see themselves and need to see their world reflected in those documents for them to be able to read and understand them. In my view, among the so-called “educated,” too much effort is placed on pragmatics and not enough is placed on semantics — what does the document actually mean?

I used to think that you needed to listen before you could learn to speak and that you needed to read before you could learn to write. Dr. Harste and Natalie Goldberg have shaken that belief as well. During his lecture, Harste showed a slide of three pages of “writing” by preschool children. Without a a recognizable word on any of them, everyone in the lecture theatre was able to spot the one from the United States, the one from Israel, and the one from Saudi Arabia. The children, who couldn’t read yet, already knew so many things about writing. It was clear from the examples that they knew what the letters of their language looked like, they appeared to know which direction to write in (left to right or right to left) but more importantly, they knew what writing was and they knew what it was for — to convey meaning. Later examples of early writing showed that children were immensely creative with their writing; one invented a letter for “s” when is sounds like  “z,” and another invented a punctuation mark to convey sadness.

Goldberg’s advice to writers? Writing is a voyage of discovery. Yes, it has structure but that structure cannot be imposed from the outside. Through writing, the writer discovers the structure and allows it to grow organically.

Both Harste and Goldberg appear to be in agreement that one learns to write through the act of writing without external constraints or limits. This appears to apply equally to children just entering the world of letters as it does to adults. What is sad for me, is that so many people appear not to have had that opportunity. Perhaps the constraints and limits placed on them at school stifled their vision of themselves as writers. Sadder still, is that their other literacies (visual, digital, environmental, cultural, musical, technological, etc.) are granted less or no importance and these people are therefore deemed “low-literacy,” or “illiterate.”

It seems to me that our challenge is two-fold:

  • to redesign the way reading and writing is taught in schools so that more people see themselves in literacy and stay on the road
  • to recognize and accept other literacies and use these to communicate important messages to the public

I will leave the first item to the teachers in the class. I believe the way to address the second item is to spend as much time with adults considered to have poor literacy skills as Harste spent with young children to find out how they read their world. We can then use that information to design ways of communicating complex but important everyday information to them. This may mean that rid ourselves of the notion of “the general public” and communicate to smaller audiences. It will be expensive, but I think it will make us all more literate.