Editorial: Cats and rats and relevance

Last updated 10:26 02/11/2012

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OPINION: You can't believe everything you're not necessarily able to read anyway.

If that statement doesn't make immediate sense to you it's hardly because your own literacy level is sub-par.

It's because the writing was unclear.

This is a point to bear in mind when we at least try to read yesterday's report in which Literacy Aotearoa says nearly half New Zealand's adults need help reading and understanding written information.

Nearly half? We struggle to accept this.

Perhaps we're in denial but two strong suspicions simultaneously arise.

The first is that the real problem here may have less to do with dodgy literacy than dodgy research.

The second is that what we might really be looking at is less a reading problem than a writing problem.

The research findings are that more than 40 per cent of adults need help comprehending text such as instructions, brochures, charts or timetables.

Well, hell, you could be as literate as you like . . . capable of wafting through Finnegans Wake at the dentist's waiting room . . . and still find yourself confounded by assembly instructions for a child's toy.

Some of the instructional writing inflicted upon the New Zealand public is maddeningly opaque.

Please to be uplifting upper limb from shoulder cavity (A) splaying manual digital units in a lateral direction (B) and oscillating with dexterity to signify veritable endorsement of hitheraforetomentioned commentary.

The problem goes far beyond clunky translations of foreign-language instructions.

It extends to the imprecisions of bureaucrats who have settled into a writing style so stale that each page carries its own puff of institutional halitosis.

We've used this example before but it still serves. A child learns to write a perfectly good sentence like "The cat sat on the mat". Nothing wrong with that.

By the time that child has tragically grown into an official he's more likely to write "The mat was sat on by the cat."

One reason for this, just quietly, is that passive writing tends to help those trying to dodge accountability. When the record reads "it was decided that . . ." it potentially provides some cover should there later be an inquiry to find what clown came up with that stupid idea.

Nowadays, of course, things have been updated. Now we're more likely to puzzle over reports of mat-cat interfaces.

Literacy Aotearoa chief executive Bronwyn Yates warns that unless more is done to help adults learn to read we run the risk of making literacy a privilege only some of us can enjoy. Note the provocative use of the word "privilege".

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If the scale of the problem is debatable, the existence of it is not. We have adults, as well as young people, who really do need help to improve their literacy. But also relevant is the aching need to improve levels of comprehensibility by having writing that is both clear and nutritious. A lesson for newspapers, certainly, but a great many other outfits as well.

- The Southland Times

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