Plain Language: Breaking Down the Literacy Barrier

Heather Matsune
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 1, 2007, page 9)

If a reader cannot understand a document, then the message of that document is not communicated. It’s a simple enough concept on the surface. And, on the surface, the right response is to write better. It is easy for language professionals to get caught up in wordsmithing. We can’t help it: it’s fun, and we’re good at it. Certainly, an elegantly turned and grammatically impeccable phrase is nothing to apologize for. But sometimes we expect our readers to have the same linguistic proficiency as we do, and sometimes we just forget who they are. Either way, if we’re not careful, we can hinder communication.

Canadians want to be communicated with clearly and directly, and that is their right. What many writers do not recognize, however, is that the state of literacy in Canada is not what we would like to believe. According to the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), 48% of the general population age 16 and over falls below the minimum level needed to function in society. That’s 12 million Canadian adults. When those low literacy levels meet with the complex administrative jargon and vague rationale typical of so many government documents, communication fails.

Literacy defined

Low literacy levels are among the greatest communication barriers for Canadians. Of course, there is more to literacy than knowing how to read and write. It has to do with how well people understand and can then use printed information at home, at work and in the community. And, by extension, it has to do with how well they can achieve their goals and develop their knowledge and potential.

Because printed information comes in a variety of styles and can require a variety of skills, the IALSS broke down the umbrella term "literacy" into two categories:

Prose literacy

  • Understanding and using basic information in texts, such as news items, brochures and manuals

Document literacy

  • Locating and using information in various formats, including application forms, maps and charts
Literacy is measured in five levels:
LevelIndividuals at this level
  • Are hard to reach with any kind of print
Example of ability: reading information on pain-killer packaging


  • Can read, but not well
  • Can deal only with text that is clear and simple
  • Can handle only one task at a time
Example of ability: reading and filling out a job application for a fast-food restaurant
  • Read well, depending on context
  • Need constant skill upgrading
  • Are at the minimum level to function in society
Example of ability: reading and processing instructions in a manual
4 and 5
  • Can process complex materials that require specialized knowledge

Literacy in Canada

According to the IALSS, many Canadians have trouble reading even the most basic type of texts. Close to half of adults come in below level 3, the minimum level, for prose literacy.

Percent of Canadian population, age 16 and over, at each level

Obviously, education is crucial in determining literacy skills. Prose literacy scores for youth and adults increase fairly consistently for each additional year of schooling completed. That said, while the link between education and literacy is strong, it is not absolute: some 20% of Canadian university graduates still rank at level 2, and approximately 2% fit the level 1 profile.

Literacy is also affected when people communicate in a language other than their first. This is especially true in Canada, owing to its linguistic duality and openness to immigration.

Occupation and age also influence literacy proficiency. In general, highly skilled professions correspond with high literacy, but as age increases, literacy tends to decrease. That may explain why approximately 82% of Canadians aged 66 and over are at levels 1 and 2. It does not, however, explain why approximately 38% of Canadians between age 16 and 25 are at the lower levels.

The IALSS concluded that low literacy crosses all demographic groups. Given the high frequency of low literacy, it is both alarming and discouraging to learn that most government documents require literacy proficiency at level 3, 4 or 5. Millions of Canadians cannot understand what the government is trying to tell them, never mind what they are supposed to do with that information. Communication is failing. This is a problem.

Plain language is the solution

Plain language makes successful communication possible. Often misunderstood as a sort of linguistic dumbing down, plain language is really about putting the reader first. This does not mean adopting an overtly simplistic style, nor does it mean abandoning the conventions of language. What it does mean is putting together a message that the people you are writing for can easily read, understand and use. Appropriate vocabulary, user-friendly formatting and sound writing techniques are all musts for meeting readers’ needs, and content must be logical and concise.

A document written in plain language makes information accessible to all your readers, no matter their literacy level, which makes it easier for them to do whatever it is they need to do. Whether addressing a nuclear physicist or an elementary school student, a message must be clear in order to be understood. Plain language becomes even more of a necessity when messages target people with low literacy. And although plain language may seem like a straightforward concept, words like remuneration, innocuous and quid pro quo still find their way into documents written for the general public. Given the IALSS statistics, it’s a safe bet that not all Canadians are familiar with such terms.

Benefits of plain language

There really is no downside to using plain language. Language professionals, the general public and the government would all benefit in different ways.

Language professionals would

  • work more efficiently, more easily achieving their communication objectives
  • increase their productivity, saving time and money
  • be better understood by the general public, improving the quality of services offered to citizens

The general public would

  • find it easier to read, understand and use information
  • be better equipped to exercise their rights and meet their obligations
  • save time and money and be more satisfied with service quality

The Government of Canada would

  • be better able to adapt its services to the needs and expectations of the general public
  • reduce program costs and improve overall performance
  • cut operating costs

The three fundamental traits of plain language

This article has explained what plain language is and why it is important. Articles in the next three issues will address how to use it, based on the three fundamental traits of plain language: readability, intelligibility and usability. Here’s a preview of what you’ll find in the upcoming articles.


A readable text is one that a person can make sense of with minimal effort. Vocabulary, syntax and presentation are some of the elements that contribute to a document’s readability. Basically, readability focuses on the writing rather than the meaning.


The principles of intelligibility are clarity, relevance, coherence and cohesion. Anything to do with the message of the text falls into this category, including content and organization.


Usability is closely related to effectiveness. While a document could be perfectly clear, it still might not be effective. Is the type of document appropriate for the readers? Are the tasks concrete, easy to do and broken down into steps? Those are just some of the questions writers need to ask to determine whether they have achieved their objective. After all, the true tests of successful communication are the action and its result.

Language professionals need to recognize that readability, intelligibility and usability are closely related concepts and that there is more to good communication than words. Ultimately, the readers are the ones interpreting the message of a text and judging the writer’s work.

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