Poor literacy: career stumbling block?

Literacy banner image.

Most people I know, even those with post-graduate degrees, tend to be dismissive of grammar and spelling as important, let alone the ability to produce readable prose.  Observing the academy over thirty years, less and less emphasis is placed on literacy skills.

That is changing as Australia comes under pressure to meet international standards in literacy, language, and numeracy skills.

What’s the yardstick?

Human resource practitioners are beginning to reach for the ready-made competency descriptions in the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF). The AQF splits all qualifications into ten levels, where a PhD is number ten, and a Certificate I is the lowest qualification level.

Here’s what the AQF says about the literacy level expected of someone at the Bachelor degree level:

Graduates at this level will have well-developed cognitive, technical and communication skills to select and apply methods and technologies to:
  • analyse and evaluate information to complete a range of activities
  • analyse, generate and transmit solutions to unpredictable and sometimes complex problems
  • transmit knowledge, skills and ideas to others

What the AQF document is talking about is excellent communication skills, not least in writing. By excellent, I don’t mean a scale on which everybody who can grunt gets a gold star. I mean an actually professional standard of English, with a solid grasp of grammar and spelling, styles appropriate to purpose and audience, and formatting/presentation at a professional level.

If you think its sounds simple enough, now go through the exercise of writing, as if for a job application, how you have demonstrated those skills. Particularly that last one.

HR managers and others who make hiring and promotion decisions are likely to embrace AQF guidelines because they replace the hard work of devising one’s own prerequisites. In the public sector, these are already de-facto standards that have to be met.

Lest you think AQF standards are tough to demonstrate, wait for the prescriptions in the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF). There isn’t a precise correlation between the AQF and ACSF, but the diagram below offers a rough equivalency.

Comparing AQF and ACSF diagram by Peter Strempel.
Diagram based on Matt Peachey.

So, by the time working people have completed a certificate IV qualification, they are expected to have level four ACSF competencies in learning, reading, writing, oral communication, and numeracy. Note the steep rise in the learning curve between pre- and post-degree qualifications, and the requirement for the same core skills before a degree is attained, and up to PhD level. Adapting to such a learning curve, and keeping the knowledge and skills acquired fresh, requires constant use of them in practical settings.

I’m not saying the AQF and ACSF prescriptions necessarily reflect workplace realities. Executives and established professionals are unlikely to be required to meet such standards, even if some of them don’t actually have the requisite skills.

However, there has been a lot of industry critique about the literacy and numeracy levels of school-leavers, and even of university graduates. In a tight jobs market, with strong competition, junior and mid-level professionals able to evidence a higher skill level than others in any area of competency will count for something.

What can you evidence?

Writing at ACSF level four in the workplace requires evidence of the following:

  • Prepares an induction manual or standard operating procedures to be used in the workplace
  • Documents roles, responsibilities and timeframes for a project plan
  • Compiles a report (e.g. on sales figures) with input from a range of sources
  • Documents a care management plan for a client incorporating a number of services
  • Writes clear and detailed instructions organised sequentially, for individual members of a group in order to complete a group activity
  • Writes organisational procedures and time frames to take account of different roles and perspectives, e.g. writes a report as a committee member to resolve difficulties about definitions of job responsibilities
  • Writes a technical/design brief or a complex work instruction based on client and stakeholder requirements
  • Prepares data for a team/group using graphs to compare production or activity over a period of time, and includes recommendations for improvements
  • Gathers information from a range of sources and rewrites using headings, instructions and layout that meet the needs of the audience and purpose of the text, e.g. job instructions or evacuation instructions
  • Writes a report on the impact of a particular procedure or technology for a specific audience, e.g. management committees or tripartite committees
  • Writes an instruction manual for a new piece of equipment or machinery
  • Creates a range of formal texts incorporating specific workplace proformas and language and maintains records on a computer, e.g. memos, letters to clients, agendas, minutes, emails or reports
  • Demonstrates understanding of a text describing complex interrelationships of events, e.g. writes a letter to a customer apologising for a lost item or prepares a report for a manager detailing a problem and steps taken to address it

I don’t know too many degree-qualified professionals, let alone tradespeople at certificate IV level, who can do all those things.  In fact, I don’t know many HR managers who can, and they are supposed to be the ones applying such standards to recruitment and promotion. 

Underlying these competencies is the unmentioned one of being able to think creatively and independently.  If these prerequisites seem exacting, consider the ones for reading at ACSF level four:

  • Actively identifies an explicit purpose for reading, e.g. to gather background information, identify specific facts or understand a concept
  • Identifies a range of questions to be answered by reading and generates further questions during the reading process
  • Evaluates the usefulness of texts to meet the purpose
  • Understands texts with complex syntactic structures that may incorporate some technical specificity and information presented in graphic, diagrammatic or visual form
  • Understands texts incorporating some abstract ideas, symbolism and embedded information, in which the relationship between concepts and information is not explicit and requires inference and interpretation
  • Synthesises relevant ideas and information from several sources
  • Integrates prior knowledge with new information to predict, construct, confirm, challenge or extend understanding
  • Recognises and reflects on the connections between context, purpose and audience across a range of text types
  • Explicitly identifies some ways in which an author uses structure, language and tone to create an impression and explain or reinforce a message, e.g. through choice of text structure, use of rhetorical questions, repetition, simile and metaphor or figures of speech
  • Identifies some stylistic conventions of a relevant discipline/field/profession
  • Begins to appreciate that reading is an active and interactive process in which the reader’s expectations and past experience influence their interpretation
  • Begins to evaluate the credibility, reasonableness and relevance of information and ideas as a routine part of the reading process

Ask yourself whether you can and do meet these standards. Be honest. You don’t have to tell anyone just yet. If the answer is ‘yes’, start to think about addressing each of these pre-requisites as if they were part of a job application in which you had to provide evidence of your competence across all points. 

I’m saying this is much more exacting than seems immediately apparent.  And that if these requirements don’t concern you, you are probably highly trained in literacy or independent of anyone else’s assessment of your skills in that domain.

How would you track if asked to compare and contrast technical and performance specifications, against budget and user requirements across several stakeholder groups, of several different IT and process systems prior to making a multimillion dollar purchasing recommendation? That one still makes me nervous.

How do you measure up?

Reading and analysing technical information are merely specific examples of a much deeper competency in this regard. There is a huge difference between consuming throw-away text on a tiny screen, designed solely to harvest and sell your personal details, and reading to try and understand someone’s arguments and ideas on paper, or at least on a book-sized screen, intended less for consumerism than productivity and professional endeavours.

It’s not enough to absorb and repeat buzzwords. Professionals worthy of promotion and better positions will have a depth of knowledge that comes only from concentrated absorption of ideas and information, leading to thoughtful critical analysis, and the resulting synthesis, or creation of new knowledge. That synthesis is the ultimate value-added product of habitual reading and analysis. It doesn’t happen as a one-off effort, and it is recognized only when it shows up as a pattern of professional practice.

Likewise, paying attention to business communications, when others don’t, will be noticed. For example, treating email as a serious business communication tool, and thinking about responses rather than being cavalier about them will be noticed and appreciated. The same goes for contributions to organizational intranets, Wikis, Sharepoint information resources, reports, submissions, and white papers.

The white paper, or the report based on analysis and stakeholder consultation, is still one of the most common demands made of professionals across a range of disciplines.  Yet they continue to be handled very badly. Being able to do this well really distinguishes a candidate for a new job or a promotion.

Let me reiterate: the competencies and tests mentioned above are not a reflection of universal reality. Not yet. But in a tight job market, where competition for jobs and promotions is fierce, the decision-makers will increasingly rely on such standards and the requirements for evidence of meeting specific competencies.

What can you do to stand out?

If you think your literacy skills could do with a brush-up, there are some easy things you can do that won’t make you sweat.

As with all other things, a skill acquired will only be a finely tuned asset if used regularly. That means you ought to read and write regularly.

Reading doesn’t have to be heavy or boring. An airport thriller, a romance novel, or even some of the classics will do. So long as it is a regular habit. Like half an hour before bed time most nights, or the twenty minutes on the train to and from work. It isn’t so much the content as the subliminal process of recognizing the correct spelling of words, the variations on grammatical usage, the incidence of idiom, metaphor, and simile, and so on. And maybe also a habit of looking up words you don’t already know, or are not sure of. All of that has become really simple in the era of eBooks, Kindles, and tablets.

Regular writing also doesn’t have to be onerous or heavy going.

Many professionals use a self-reflection discipline to review and improve their practices and performance. That means thinking about what you did today, whether it could have been done better, and if so, how. I do this first in my head and then on paper, in a longhand journal. Journalling doesn’t have to aim at Tolstoyesque door-stop volumes. Entries in a journal can be quite brief, but it is a good idea to get into the habit of writing clear sentences anyone in the same profession could understand–the way it is required in business and professional communication.

Book maelstrom image.

In that context, it is not enough to adhere to government style guides on dumbing down language and concepts; not everyone you work with has the mental age of a 12-year-old, the way public sector style guides insist. And, the way some news organizations still demand of journalists.

At the same time as habitually writing clean and precise sentences, there are some bad habits to avoid. Two of the least professional forms of communication today are SMS text messages, and tweets. If you indulge in these frequently, your professional communication skills may be withering away quite rapidly for lack of use. Just look at the poor quality of communication that characterizes the tweets of some well-known contemporary business people and politicians. Bad communication like that is a reflection, too, of poor analytical skills and muddled thinking.

Another really bad habit is treating email as if it were an informal text messaging app. That’s not made easier by companies like Google offering to auto-complete your email responses with semi-literate hipster talk:

When my in-box started offering me Smart Replies, I felt a little offended. How dare it guess what I want to say, I thought. I—a professional writer!—have more to offer than just “Got it!” or “Love it!” or “Thanks for letting me know!” (Smart Replies are big on exclamation points.) I started to resent the A.I., which seemed to be learning my speech patterns faster than I could outsmart it. Just as I decided that I’d thwart the machine mind by answering my messages with “Cool!” (side note: it is hard to sound like anything but a Dad Trying to Be Hip over e-mail, even without robotic intervention), the service started offering me several “Cool” varietals. Suddenly, I could answer with “Sounds cool” or “Cool, thanks” or the dreaded “Cool, I’ll check it out!” (Spoiler: I’m not going to check it out.)

My greatest anxiety about using Smart Replies, though, was that other people would know I was using them. I worried that my editors would see my “On it!” and feel like I was cruising on autopilot, or that my friends would get a “Perfect!” and feel like I didn’t care enough about them to craft a finely tailored response. (This unease runs both ways: Has the editor who replies “This is great!” even bothered to read my fresh story draft?) Answering e-mails started to become more work than it used to be, as I labored to whip up artisanal one-liners. My typical response to a quick work e-mail—a straightforward, if somewhat Wally Cleaver-esque, “Gotcha”—now sounded horrifically canned. I became baroque in my punctuation and capitalization (“LET A GAL KNOW!!!”), figuring that sounding like a deranged human was preferable to sounding like a computer server.

Rachel Syme, The New Yorker, 28 November 2018

Email has legal status now, and should be written and responded to the same way as official correspondence. For most organizations, that requires a level of formality that doesn’t stoop to one-liners. When I respond to business emails I tend to draft my replies in a word processor, as much to remind me that this isn’t some onerous task worthy of only a slapdash effort as it is to help me focus on the message rather than the medium. What is it that needs to be said. Not what can I get away with because, personally, I might think of email as not a serious communication medium.

All this to say, if you do not write long-form prose regularly, you will get worse at it over time.

If you are considering a move from your current job, or asking for promotion, it couldn’t hurt to start practicing the kind of writing you need to do to evidence your skills in this area. I have a portfolio of sample written work to show if I need to, as evidence of the range and complexity of documents I can and do write. And I have copies of previous submissions and other documents that I can easily re-process for new purposes.

Maybe you don’t need a portfolio, but it couldn’t hurt to have some ready-made sample documents for reports, submissions, applications, and any other kinds of documents you might be asked to produce at short notice.

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