Informational Writing For A Post-Literate Audience

Teaching the Bible in places where they don’t speak the language has always been a challenge for missionaries. One strategy is to send missionaries out to the far reaches of the earth to stay for many years while they learn the language, followed by the task of translating the Bible to that newly learned language and then sending more missionaries out to disseminate it.  Although this can work in a literate culture, in communities where few or no people read, it doesn’t work. Though one solution is to teach a few people in the community to read, this still has limited success because these societies as a whole learn using the tools of an oral tradition. A strategy that actually does work in these oral tradition cultures is to teach the Bible in stories — culturally relevant stories that are easy to remember and easy to repeat.

Today, Caeser Kalinowski, a founding leader of the Soma Communities, demonstrated to a home gathering of about 14 people how the tools of oral traditions are successfully being used to teach the God story in the USA. Kalinowski presented data that showed about 50% of the US population over the age of 16 is functionally illiterate. Only about 30% of the other half prefers to learn through reading.  That leaves about 85% of people in the US who, even when they desire to learn about God, either don’t consider reading the Bible or are unable to. We are, he explained, a post-literate culture. Our learning and thinking have changed from word and ideas based to story and image based. So, his fast growing missional group, and others like it, now regularly teach the important Christian themes verbally in a process based around Bible storytelling and discussion.

Based on my experience this weekend, if blogging for a post-literate culture makes any sense at all, it’s easy for me to conclude that narrative and images are the more natural forms. A story can be read aloud, retold, or even turned into a movie, a graphic novel or comic strip and then placed on the internet for all to see. But certain kinds of information really aren’t effectively molded into an interesting story.

One way to overcome this is to show the information as images, and if necessary, a minimum amount of text. An appropriate picture or graph really can be worth 1000 words. For example, this fact sheet about Auroras contains just enough text that you can learn quickly, with little reading comprehension ability what the really cool photo is and how you might be able to see one yourself.

Another way to effectively write informationally to a post-literate audience is to take a minimalistic approach by being clear and to the point in as few words as possible. This article, from the Elkhart Truth, about stormwater fees does a decent job of requiring little reading to learn the content. On the downside, it contains only a small amount of information and requires additional knowledge of the issue to fully understand the content.  Although I don’t think it would be easy for a functionally illiterate person to work through this article, it’s short enough to interest a person who can read but prefers not to. I think that a few graphs – one on the fees collected and one on how they are distributed could convey even more of the detail and be more accessible to those who have difficultly reading.

Not all informational writing can be or should be aimed at the functional illiterate, but it does makes sense to keep post-literacy preferences in mind. Even though you lose about half of your potential audience by too much text, you can still captivate the remainder by tailoring your message to their learning preferences. In Thomas L. Friedman’s op-ed piece about massive open online courses (MOOCs), information is embedded inside of narrative, opinion and persuasion — all tools to help the reader connect to the facts and even imagine themselves inside the story of participating in an online class themselves.

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2 Responses to Informational Writing For A Post-Literate Audience

  1. dukeshoward says:

    A few thoughts. Media have known for years that that kind of long form journalism that other writers swoon over may not be what a lot of our readers want or a interested in reading. That is why, starting in the 1980s with USA Today, articles got shorter and stories included graphics. In fact, many “stories” were nothing but graphs. So a story like the storm water story probably was a sidebar to a larger news story. I don’t know if half of the populace is functionally illiterate. The number seems a bit high to me, but I take his point that many people who profess to be Christians don’t read the bible and do not have any understanding of the tenants of the faith. There have been numerous studies to that effect. And faith leaders may have to “teach” the faith through stories and oral tradition in order to reach those who may be functionally illiterate, I wonder if folk understand the irony in that. 500 plus years after printing presses made books widely available and Martin Luther started the Protestant movement – in part – to empower believers to learn about God sans an intermediary in the form of a pastor, a large segment of the Christian community is going back to faith leaders using stories to explain the bible. Wow.

  2. DebbS says:

    Here’s the definition of Functional illiteracy from the Soma Community training materials:
    – Can read some signs, food labels, ads and parts of a newspaper.
    – Can not locate two pieces of information in a news article
    – Can not successfully fill out an SS card application
    – Forms opinions through conversation with friends, the radio and TV.
    – Learns through stories, anecdotes, proverbs, songs and practical experiences.

    50% would have seemed high to me, but given some of my own more recent experiences with groups of people whom I would not normally live or work with side by side, I am not shocked at that number.

    On that last point – Yeah. Wow. Sigh.

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