Today I'm going to explore something basic. Something that seems evident to all of us.
I'm writing about reading. After all we (at least the majority of us) read all the time. Think through your day. You wake up and you read the time. Then you unconsciously read the letters on your toothpaste. On your cereal box. In the newspaper or on your phone (unconsciously before your morning coffee). On the way to work. At work. Everywhere. All day long. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the time when I didn't care about reading or writing. Then I realize it was too long ago. I read since I was four. Children are curious. Even though I couldn't read before that age, I always tried to understand the written words. Sometimes I only knew the first letter, then I would complete the rest in my mind. That's how "Parable" became "Parachute" in my mind before every bedtime stories. Writing is essential, I said. Now I have to add that reading, in turn, is indispensable.
UNESCO defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."
It is a challenge to engage people with reading. It's difficult with kids, but I'd say it's even more difficult with grown-ups, with burnt in patterns. A lot of problem arise from low level of literacy, and I feel like we have to do something with it. We have to teach our kids how to read for pleasure, but first and foremost we have to find our way back to books. Our age of electronic devices and enormous amount of information is partly responsible for the decreasing literacy level; but it's also here to help if we learn to take advantages of it. A lot of people are against e-books, even though they don't even read real ones. In my opinion e-books are brilliant alternatives, and though it takes time to get used to them, they make reading easier than ever. I also think that distraction from every direction is hindering us from reading for longer periods with a deep focus on the text in front of us. Because of this I believe in minimalism in design. I believe that we have to remove the visual clutter in order to make something appealing for the eyes, and digestible for the brain. This way it will be easy to identify and understand. This is important, because understanding encourages us to move forward instead of giving up and choose the easier way.
This leads to the question of readability. There are two factors that influence legibility in electronic environment:
- the above mentioned visual aspect – the less the clutter around the text, the more focused one can read
- and the language aspect – the simpler the text, the easier it is to read.
For a long time I didn't pay attention to readability, at least when I was writing in English. I assumed what I wrote was easy to read for everyone. Then I attended a technical writing course, where our amazing teacher, Mica, opened my eyes on the facts.
In the U.S. an average adult reads at the 9th-grade-level (Source: The National Adult Literacy Survey in 1992 and National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003 by U.S. Department of Education). Though these results are old, the reading levels showed only slight improvement each year.
The situation is about the same in most European countries. Another study also shows, that most people prefer to read texts that are easier than their "reading-age" level (Oxford Guide to Plain English).
I was amazed by these statistics, and it made me realize how important it is to know our audience, and help them reading our content.
In the next part of this topic I'll talk about some tools you can use to achieve this goal, and I will also going to show you some interesting things about how people read.