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.