reading a book

How to talk about literacy to people outside the field

People who work in the adult literacy field are passionate educators who often spend their entire careers in the sector. While we spend a lot of time networking with others in our industry about literacy and adult education, it’s equally important to have conversations with those outside the field if we really want to push our agenda and raise awareness.

Whether you’re trying to market your program, advocate for more government funding, or develop partnerships with sponsors, communicating the importance of adult literacy is key. Oftentimes, there is a lack of knowledge around our sector that often makes it challenging to emphasize the important work we do.

In order to effectively community about literacy to people outside of the field, ABC Life Literacy Canada offers the following tips:

Know your audience

Depending on who you’re talking to, you will want to position your messaging in a way that is most meaningful for them. For example, if you’re trying to gain government funding or partner with local employers, it’s important to talk about the impact that literacy has on employability skills, ultimately helping with job creation, productivity, the economy, and a company’s bottom line.

If you’re trying to attract more learners to your program, you’ll want to communicate how improving one’s literacy will open up doors and provide more opportunities.

Knowing who your audience is and what they value will impact not only what you say but how you say it. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your audience – do they have background knowledge on the impacts of literacy skills or do you need to give them a bit more information and share statistics? Is literacy even the right word to use? Perhaps terms like “workplace skills” would be better, depending on the audience. Be thoughtful in your messaging.

Refer to the continuum

Literacy is not a have or a have not; that is, it’s not so much that people can or can’t read, but more so that people have different levels of literacy and may be stronger in some areas than others.

Literacy is defined by UNESCO as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. The term “varying contexts” here is key because there are many different ways you can use reading and writing, such as reading a manual at work, writing a resume, or interpreting a prescription.

Explain to people that literacy is on a continuum and on a range that is always present. This means that every individual sits somewhere on that range, depending on their skillsets, and can easily move up the range to higher literacy skills with a bit of practice and learning.

We avoid using the term illiteracy – which indicates someone is or isn’t literate and only represents a very small percentage in Canada – and instead focus on the fact that everyone, regardless of how educated they are, sits somewhere on the continuum.

Share stories

Working directly with learners gives you insight into the lives of adults that are improving their literacy skills. Stories are very powerful in communicating messages because they are more memorable, ultimately resonating better with people. By talking about literacy through the eyes of your learners, you’re more likely to engage your audience and better demonstrate the meaningful work that you do.

Storytelling is a great way to demonstrate the outcome or end result of your work. Your audience will clearly be able to see through example the impact that literacy training can have on people.

Talk about the benefits

Statistics are great, but sometimes they can just become a set of numbers. With regards to literacy, there is still that sense of skepticism that the literacy stats aren’t real in Canada. By talking about benefits of literacy, people are better able to make the connection.

Refer back to stories of your learners and talk about how improved literacy skills has changed their lives, or speak to statistics that have more of a qualitative anecdote. Again, it’s important to keep your audience in mind, so if you’re speaking to an employer, they will want to know about benefits related to their business.

Use visuals

We live in an age of information overload, which can be very overwhelming. By presenting information in a more compelling and visual way, you can break through the noise and capture someone’s attention. Creating or leveraging existing infographics, images, videos and other visual assets can help you tell a better, more engaging story.

Remove the stigma

In the last several years, we’ve seen the term literacy being used more frequently with terms such as financial literacy, health literacy and media literacy becoming more common practice.

Interestingly, these types of literacy seem to have less of a stigma attached to them compared to just the term “literacy”. When talking about literacy, speak to its context in the various areas of our life – such as managing money, reading a prescription bottle, or identifying fake news on a website. By talking about literacy and its applications in daily life – through the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts – we can aim to remove the stigma.