With such high levels of functional illiteracy in North America—some estimates peg the number at about 42 percent of the total population—what implications do numbers like this have on professional communicators?
In his book Empire of Illusion, author Chris Hedges shares some startling statistics about illiteracy in Canada and the U.S:
- About 27 million Americans are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. There are some 50 million people who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate.
- A third of high-school graduates never read another book in their lives, and neither do 42 percent of university grads.
- In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the U.S. didn’t buy or read a book.
- Canada has an illiterate and semiliterate population estimated at 42 percent of the whole, a proportion that mirrors that of the U.S.
Given these statistics, does it always make sense to churn out book-centric user guides and help systems?
As always, it depends on your audience. But I believe that writers will need to embrace other technologies to convey messages. Some ideas:
- Using sites like Twitter to communicate key messages in 140 characters or less.
- Creating how-to demonstrations and videos with voiceovers may become the norm.
- Delivering Podcasts for explaining some products and concepts.
- Taking advantage of social media sites to foster dialog with customers.
- Writing content for a three-inch screen, as consumers continue to snap-up smart phones, such as Blackberrys and iPhones.