Literacy has a profound effect on people’s lives, in particular, their ability to effectively interact with government and participate fully in society. It is a difficult skill to define, let alone measure, especially in a fast-paced digital environment where mass information is delivered in multiple formats and to audiences from diverse backgrounds.
Some of the factors that can affect literacy levels include a person’s linguistic background, education level, age, even their postcode. Assessing reading levels is one way to measure literacy amongst the adult population. This method is based on the reading levels students are expected to achieve in specific Australian school years and these are the statistics government agencies should be paying attention to when they design information and services.
When it comes to accessing government content, although Australians actually score above the OECD average for adult literacy, only 15 per cent are reading at level 4-5. This is the highest level, equivalent to Certificate or Diploma standard. Forty-four per cent of adults are reading at level 1-2, a low level, expected of students in years 7 – 10. Around 38 per cent are reading at level 3 which is the standard expected of students in years 11 and 12. The new Style Manual has a useful discussion about this.
These findings have important implications for the agencies responsible for the government information people rely on to manage everything from taxes to health, child care and education. Regardless of literacy levels, all users should be able to interact with government quickly and easily. In fact, a right to equitable access to information is enshrined in Australian law – another reason why it’s vital government content creators understand the literacy levels of users and ensure the content they produce is accessible and readable for most people using it. This means creating content with the reader in mind, using the right tone of voice and using language that is clear and concise.
This is not suggesting government information needs to become so simplified and watered down that it fails to achieve its purpose. Research shows that everyone, regardless of their education level and reading ability, benefits from clear, straightforward writing presented at an early secondary school level. Interestingly, the preference for clear English actually increases with a person’s level of education and with the complexity of the content. These are often the people who are time-poor yet have the most to read.
The new digital edition of the Australian Government Style Manual, the authoritative guide for government content, promotes writing that is easy to read, accessible and inclusive. It is also designed for a digital world where reading and writing are rarely practised as discrete skills and recognises that not everyone has the literacy levels required to access, read and understand what is written.
Its recommendation for government content is that text should be in plain English and presented at a reading level of year 7 (12-14 years of age) to capture the between 84 and 85 per cent of Australians who read at this level, or above.
Effectively communicating with increasingly diverse audiences and building trust with them presents both challenges and opportunities for all government agencies. Respecting people’s time and presenting important information in clear English, at a reading level that captures the majority of readers should be the goal of all government communications.