Language, literacy and knowledge needs

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Underpinning information and communication

Language, literacy and knowledge underpin information and communication needs. Effective information tells us what we want to know, using language and literary features we understand.

Communication occurs when we use language to respond to, and engage with, other people.

How much we understand is not a fixed ability. If we’re interested in a topic, and feeling well, we understand better. If the information is too difficult, or unwelcome, we switch off.

We can’t control all of these factors, but there is a lot we can do to make information and communications more accessible. Accessibility starts with understanding customers’ needs

Prevalence of need

Literacy data suggests 43% of the adult population in England have reading skills below GCSE Grade C. Most information is more complex than GCSE Grade C level.

This means nearly half the adult population finds unadapted information too difficult to read and understand.

But the literacy data tells us only half (or 43%) of the story. The ability to understand and communicate is influenced by context, so functional literacy is not just about inherent ability. Everyone has language, literacy and knowledge needs.

Language needs

Language is the words and sentences we use to transmit, negotiate and share ideas and knowledge.

Written, spoken and visual communications all require language processing to be understandable, memorable and usable.

Language difficulties and disabilities may be acquired or developmental. They may also be secondary to a health condition, sensory impairment or other disability.

When language is too difficult

You can’t rely on your customers to tell you your information is too difficult. Often, customers won’t know if they’ve misunderstood, and they may not want to disclose an impairment or disability.

Without adaptations, information can be misinterpreted, easily forgotten, or simply meaningless to many customers. Inaccessible communications can result in frustration and disengagement.

User research and user testing may also be invalid, if participants don’t fully understand the language of engagement.

Literacy needs

Literacy is the ability to read and write. A wider definition includes finding, evaluating and using information.

Reading starts with decoding letters and sounds. Difficulty decoding is called dyslexia. Once the words are decoded, literacy is very dependent on language skills.

Literacy also includes the ability to interpret document design and conventions, such as chapter headings and bullet points. Design and textual features help us organise and understand ideas.

Link between language and literacy needs

Low literacy is often caused by, or correlated with, language and cognitive difficulties.

Reading aloud and understanding are separate skills. Dyslexia is not a language difficulty, although the two may occur together.

It is also possible to decode words, and ‘read’, without understanding. Understanding involves additional language and cognitive processes. User testing should therefore go beyond the ability to read and recall words, to ensure information is understandable and accessible.

Knowledge needs

Knowledge needs are what the customer wants and needs to know.

The amount, type and complexity of information each customer wants is influenced by their language needs, including capacity to process and remember language.

What do language and literacy needs ‘look’ like?

You cannot always tell if someone has difficulty understanding, and difficulties may not be acknowledged.

Sources of difficulty are diverse, because language and literacy levels are dependent on a number of related skills.

People with language and literacy difficulties may have good functional language in social situations, and have no trouble reading single words, sentences and even whole texts.

Need may be mild, transient, fluctuating or undiagnosed. Ability is also context dependent, so ‘low literacy’ is not always a distinct population segment.

Research tells us:

  • 1 in 5 people will experience communication impairment at some point
  • changes in language processing are a natural part of ageing
  • more than 11 million people in the UK have a long term illness, impairment or disability
  • up to 90% of people with a learning or intellectual disability have communication needs

Language and literacy needs are also associated with:

  • autistic spectrum disorder
  • dementia, Alzheimer’s
  • stroke, neurological disease, head injury
  • mental health conditions
  • language disorders
  • sensory impairment
  • cognitive processing difficulties eg sequencing
  • memory impairment
  • English as a second language

Increasing accessibility

If you’d like to review your customers’ needs, or adapt your communications for accessibility, please get in touch.

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