Literacy and Language: The Issue

The following is an excerpt from the Public Health Agency of Canada; – Retrieved January 2009.

Literacy – the ability to absorb and understand written information and to act on this knowledge – is an inescapable consideration when you’re planning to communicate with seniors.

Low literacy skills have obvious implications for seniors’ health, safety, consumer choices, social connections, and awareness of programs and services. It also has an impact on the effectiveness of all communication media relying on the written word.

While it is estimated that around 48% of Canadians have some degree of difficulty with reading, surveys indicate that as many as 80% of Canadian seniors currently over 65 may have reading problems significant enough to interfere with tasks such as filling out forms or reading instructions on medicine containers (document literacy), understanding information provided by government and other institutions (prose literacy) or doing basic arithmetic (quantitative literacy) such as balancing a chequebook, calculating a tip or completing an order form.8

With less access to education earlier this century, many older adults did not gain the skills and knowledge needed to use printed material effectively. They may have coped over the years by emphasizing oral communication, developing strong memory skills, and turning to a relative or friend to interpret written material. But aging may eventually undermine their ability to rely on these strategies, making it more and more difficult to acquire vital information about health, safety and financial security if it is available only from printed sources.3

In addition, seniors may be literate in their mother tongue but not in English or French, or may come from cultures with environments, outlooks, traditions and religious beliefs that remove them from many aspects of Canadian society – including technological changes, health, social and transportation services, educational structure, occupational options, perceptions of health and illness, and options in living arrangements. Communicators should never equate limited literacy with a limited capacity to understand. Plain language and culturally sensitive choices of medium and message can help to overcome these barriers to effective communication and help you reach a much larger audience.