The lowdown on literacy

By at home

Although the next generation, and successive ones, will find technology a part of everyday life, it would be a huge mistake to ‘write-off’ the importance of literacy.

Having this basic proficiency can strengthen career options. Many years of relaxed teaching methods towards spelling and grammar have produced a raft of young people unable to construct simple sentences and who are ignorant to Standard English rules. A good portion of these young adults have degrees and other qualifications to their name yet struggle to send an accurate, lucid or informative email without direction.

The advent of the computer allows job applicants to email prospective employers – employers who still insist on seeing a C.V. – a practice which certainly does not look to change in the near, or far-flung, future.  

Spelling and grammar are not the only considerations; punctuation can be just as damaging when used incorrectly or if absent. For example, many people add their hobbies and interests to their Curriculum Vitae, but take this sentence which genuinely appeared: "My interests include cooking dogs and interesting people". Undoubtedly, that missing comma completely transformed the reader’s view of the person applying for the post.  

An astonishing 94% of job seekers were hindered by poor grammar, spelling and literacy skills, according to a survey carried out just last year.¹

Three or four years of education could be instantly overshadowed by simple spelling mistakes or grammatical confusion.  As employers can currently afford to be very picky as to whom they employ (for even the most menial of jobs) a candidate’s whole future with a company can literally rest on a missing apostrophe. What a shame… what a waste.

Perhaps the applicant is ahead of the game and hired a professional to skim over that all important C.V.  If they were lucky enough to get the job, there are still hundreds of situations where the written word could be a reflection on them.  Even in an email, their text will be how they are initially judged by new contacts; it’s all well and good texting their friends with heartfelt messages such as “l8r m8”, but should they rely on abbreviated text speak in a professional capacity they are not only likely to lose their audience before they’ve conveyed their message, but also their integrity and authority towards the matter in hand.

Spell-check is a wonderful invention, but this does not eradicate all the errors in a document. If an incorrect word is spelt accurately within text, this program will not pick up the context in which the error appears, and therefore will fail to flag it to the user as something to amend. If one is proficient at spelling and with grammar, it will be an unused program, anyway.

Grammar schools no longer exist in the capacity they once enjoyed and successive governments are constantly berated for not applying emphasis to such an important subject. Exams are getting easier, if the media is to be believed, yet school leavers in their droves have poor literacy levels. The National Curriculum is starting to realise this focus has been forgotten in favour of other elements of a pupils’ education and for some it is too late. Or is it?

Basic writing skills are so important and so easy to learn, it’s puzzling why there is not more importance placed on this life skill in our early years when our brains are like sponges.  Learning anything as an adult takes longer and can sometimes seem insurmountable, but having a good command of English and grammar can not only boost your professional prospects, it can do wonders for someone’s confidence too.  Adults revisiting basic skills may not learn quite as quickly as junior school children for a variety of reasons, but they will bring a stronger commitment and a better understanding with their additional years of experience.

The face of one’s business
Company owners should also take some responsibility for their staff.  If front-line employees are sending out correspondence – physically or electronically – that is littered with mistakes, what impression will their clients have of the business?  Many larger corporations invest thousands in the training of their staff – literacy should be the utmost priority as a form of customer service.  Front-line staff represent one’s company – they should portray it in the very best light possible.

Engaging and effective content in text can do more for a business than hundreds of pounds worth of advertising. And by learning instilling these skills in employees, a company could have all the sales tools and skills needed to promote their business. Through literacy coaching, individuals could have the aptitude, proficiency and confidence to present their basic abilities to the appropriate market. Our lack of literacy as a nation is also apparent on the world stage. In the current climate it is imperative we boost commerce between other nations and markets to sustain any growth in our economy.  

The UK has been placed in the bottom half of a 20-nation survey of adult reading and literacy standards.²

With statistics like these it is going to make the task of economic recovery even harder.  Migration brings many talented people to our country, a very large majority being multi-lingual from an early age through their native education – with a better grasp of written English than their UK counterparts. We may complain, again, highlighted frequently by the media, that foreign applicants take jobs from British workers. If faced, as a recruiter, with two candidates – one that had mastered English as a second language against one that had not even managed this level of ability in their native tongue, which would you imagine would be employed?

There is the argument that technology, as opposed to education, has altered the need to use formal language.  The study of linguistics and vernacular accepts that our language is, indeed, constantly evolving; however, basic Standard English seems to change only marginally and major variations come from the introduction of ‘new’ words, or ones born from usage that have become firmly ingrained.  However, it is true that there is a whole ‘language’- referred to as ‘text speak’.  

Will ‘Text Speak’ ever replace our regular language?
The act of abbreviating words has been a practice stemming far earlier than the first mobile gadgets or computer programs, and echoes shorthand more closely than Standard English.  Although this idiom is used daily in social media it has never shown signs of taking the world of enterprise by storm.  Taking into account professions such as law, Standard English is unlikely ever to be deviated from, as the whole crux of the judiciary system relies on clear, lucid explanation of events and outcomes.  

Proof that Proofreading is Vital

Proofreading text is not an accusation that the author shows poor spelling or literacy.  Neither is it a reflection of anyone’s intelligence – it is merely another pair of eyes checking text that the composer may have read many times over.  In the majority of cases, the proof reader will have noticed something that the author hasn’t.  Not because they CAN’T, but because they’ve been busy and this is the thirteenth time they’ve read or amended the piece; there is a deadline looming or there’s fifty-five more jobs on their to-do list……whatever. For most people, it’s very hard to notice errors in their own compositions.

The written word will never go out of fashion, so it’s just as important amidst new technology to develop literacy.  Language is a tool used to connect and form relationships with others and is a skill to master, just like anything else.

¹ Personal Management Survey 2009
² Report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studying literacy levels in 20 developed countries

About the author
Diane Hall has been a freelance writer, editor, proof reader and entrepreneur for many years, providing articles, poems and marketing copy for various outlets and publications.  Earlier this year she also began writing works of fiction; her first children’s story ‘Marvin the Lazy Marmot’ was recently published by Star Books and she has just completed a fantasy novel for the young adult market. Diane lives in Yorkshire, England with her husband and two girls, Caitlin, 11, and Zara, six.

Pictures kindly from here and here

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