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Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had | Angela Colter, Contents Magazine

Colter makes a convincing argument in this article why writers and editors producing materials for the general public must consider the possibility of an invisible audience for nearly every document. She writes that nearly half the people reading any public document "may have low literacy skills."

She writes:
Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you, it’s a shocking number. But for proof, just check out the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. It found that 21-23% of U.S. adults had highly deficient literacy skills while another 25-28% had very limited literacy skills.[1] Those two are the groups it defines as having low literacy. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development found similar levels of low literacy in North America, Australia, and most of Europe.[2]
Colter then defines "low literacy" and describes people who likely have low literacy. She also notes that we all may be low literacy at times.

She writes:
It’s tempting to think that audiences are coming to our content with the basic skills needed to comprehend and interpret it. That may simply not be the case. Part of “consider[ing] your content from your user’s perspective” is understanding what reading skills the user brings to the equation and writing to accommodate them.
Colter then describes strategies that low-literacy readers might take when they're confronted with something they can't read or have difficulty reading. She writes:
People with low literacy skills have difficulty understanding what they read because they’re spending so much effort on decoding—word and letter recognition—that they have few cognitive resources left to interpret meaning. They may read every word put in front of them, but because they don’t have much left to attend to comprehension, they take little meaning from what they read.
Her description of those strategies is useful because it provides reasons for her next section: "Accommodating low-literacy readers." Colter writes:
You might be feeling like there is little you can do to accommodate unskilled readers. But take heart: there are plenty of ways to present information that make it easier (if not exactly easy) for low-literacy adults to understand and use it.
She concludes by discussing why it matters to accommodate low-literacy readers. Here's my view: It's a waste of time, energy, creativity and resources to write or edit anything for a particular audience if up to half the targeted readers can't read it or won't read it because it's difficult to comprehend.


If publishing a document is important to a writer, client, employer or organization, it's the responsibility of people producing the document to meet the reading needs of the targeted audience. At least they must try to meet the needs of many more than half the readers.

For more advice on creating documents that meet the needs of readers, check out Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.


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