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.” (http://ebookee.org/Literacy-in-America-An-Encyclopedia-of-History-Theory-and-Practice_1353762.html)

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 Thesaurus.com 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.

Want to help someone learn? Learn from them first.

Notebook entry #3 2011-10-02

It seems a little trite to say, but I really do believe that in order to teach anyone anything in any way, you have to learn a little from them first.

I am not a teacher in the formal sense of the word. I do not have a BEd and I do not have a class of people to whom I am responsible for imparting knowledge. So when I read the suggested readings for my Literacy Learning class this week, I initially felt distant from them, that they did not relate to my experience.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am a teacher of sorts but I am separated from students by a document. I have “taught” snowplow operators the rules and rituals they need to do their jobs. I have “taught” farmers about transporting their produce and fuel. I have “taught” recreational vehicle riders rules and best practices related to riding ATVs, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes. And I have “taught” tourists and students about Nova Scotia history and our democratic system of government. Sometimes I do this without ever meeting them, and that’s a shame. My writing is always  better when I can get to know my audience.

That’s how I related to this week’s readings. I particularly enjoyed those by Lisa Delpit and Judith Baker. Both women wrote about the importance of learning from their students before they can teach them. I particularly enjoyed Judith Baker’s respect for her students’ “home” English (51) and how she used her students’ understanding of that form of English as a basis for teaching “formal” English, as discussed in Trilingualism, a chapter in The skin that we speak: thoughts on language and culture in the classroom.  It was interesting to see how Baker’s respect for the way her students spoke opened their ears to the different forms of English they speak and hear around them. It also gave them the confidence to choose which form of English to use in different circumstances.

“As young people become less fearful of being manipulated or disrespected, I think they can become engaged in the study of their own language competence,” Baker wrote. “They can weigh their options, choose how they want to speak and write in each new setting.” (59)

Baker also found that when “formal” English held real meaning for her students, they were able to use it correctly and naturally. This happened when her students gave presentations related to their technical classes. “… had I not seen the student in this other language dimension, I would not have realized how easily they moved within it or how eager they would be to do so.” (60)

Delpit wrote about the importance of not confusing “dialect intervention with reading instruction.” (160). She illustrates her point with the example of a student who clearly understands the meaning of the sentence he is reading but, in the teacher’s opinion, mispronounces the words and so reads the sentence “wrong.”

Delpit also writes about the different ways different cultures tell stories and finds a bias in education in favour of the “white” way of doing this.

Delpit concludes that “if teachers hope to avoid negatively stereotyping the language patterns of their students, it is important that they be encouraged to interact with, and willingly learn from, knowledgeable members of their students’ cultural groups.” (157)

I think George J. Sefa Dei was getting at the same thing in his conversation with Meredith Lordan published in Language, Linguistic Discrimination and Polyvocality: Bringing Language into Discussions of Discrimination and Racism published in The poetics of anti-racism.

In speaking about different accents and dialects, Dei says, “There is … the obligation on the part of the listener to work with what is being said.”. He adds, “There’s … a punishment if one speaks in a different accent or in ways that others claim they can’t understand or hear.” (33)

I agree with him but only to a certain point. That is, when we are in a position of teaching, however we may define it, we must be open to listening and learning from those we purport to teach. So, in that sense, it is, as Dei says, our obligation to work with what is being said by the learner.

However, as a teacher, it is also our job to speak and write as clearly as possible to our audience taking into consideration the way our audience understands. That is why, in the field of plain language, testing is so important.

If I create a document aimed at a specific audience with the goal of them learning a specific thing or accomplishing a specific task, it is up to me to make sure they understand. It is not up to my audience to learn to understand what I have done. If my audience doesn’t understand, it’s my fault, not theirs.

So how do I find out if my document works? Testing. This is very rarely done but it is so important for letting us know whether our documents work. PlainLanguage.gov has a brief but helpful section on its website dedicated to testing documents for plain language.

After testing a document, it is important not to criticize the audience, but to fix any shortfalls we have in making the message clear.

As Diana Athill said: “Writing shouldn’t come between the reader and what’s being described. It should be as transparent as possible.”


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.