Editors are concerned with usability of the words they work on, and usually that means making them accessible to readers. The challenge is that editors are highly literate people. They don’t always understand how difficult reading is for most people. Editors make sense of some of the most complex prose, and even make sure that is punctuated to be accurate. Editors are part of the top 13% when it comes to literacy skills.*
Think about that. That means that 87% of readers are less able to process the words than the people who produced them are. In fact, 14 to 20% of English North America doesn’t have enough reading skills to get through the day.
While a simple dictionary’s definition of illiteracy is just “the inability to read or write,” literacy experts give the definition more nuance, assessing four to five levels of literacy. At the lowest level, below basic, the person cannot read a simple sign or label. We’re not talking about a parking sign in Manhattan here, just a simple sign.—If we used parking signs to assess literacy, probably none of us would pass muster.—There are three or four more levels of literacy, depending on the scale being used. These generally include basic, intermediate, and proficient.
Editors are most likely to score as “proficient readers.” In the basic and intermediate levels of literacy assessment, we find people who can’t manage daily living and work tasks that require reading skills beyond a most elementary level. Those people can read, but not with fluency or speed, and they struggle with unfamiliar and polysyllabic words. This category of reading ability is called functional illiteracy.
Functional illiteracy means that a person reads too slowly to make reading practical. They cannot effectively use a written manual, and so forth. In the USA and Canada, the number of functionally illiterate adults ranges from 14% to 20% of the population. These adults can’t read well enough to do simple, everyday things.
The Number of Literate Adults
Only 13% of the US population are proficient readers: they can compare viewpoints in two editorials; interpret a simple data table such as a Fitbit would give; or calculate and compare the cost of different drink sizes per ounce. That means that 87% of people in the US cannot do these tasks. Only 30% of those in the low-literacy categories are immigrants; language unfamiliarity is not the main issue.
The Editor’s Literacy Task
As editors, it is our job to advise writers on how to make their words accessible to their target audience. If that audience is general public, we would do well to consider the needs of those who find reading a challenge, and especially of those who make up the 87%.
*The complete international studies about illiteracy and their analysis can be found on these sites: https://www.fondationalphabetisation.org/en/causes-of-illiteracy/mistaken-beliefs/
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