Monday, 25 October 2021

Adult Literacy: Are We Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?


Many years ago, I knew a woman who'd recently become a Christian. Her first Bible was written in a fairly easy-to-read translation, and she enjoyed reading it. She could understand it. Then one day, I was attending a Christian talk with her, and the speaker made a couple of throwaway comments about this particular version of the Bible. He didn't like it because of a couple of points in the translation. His talk wasn't about Bible translation. He wasn't aiming his comments directly at my friend. He simply dropped those couple of snippets and moved on. But they had an effect. My friend got the impression that she didn't have the 'right' Bible and that she needed to get a 'proper' Bible.

I was annoyed at the time, and I'm still annoyed more than 30 years later. Why? Not because of some finer points of Bible translation, but because this Bible was at a reading level that was comfortable for my friend. Many people have been blessed by this Bible, it sells millions each year, and I have a copy of it next to my bed that I read every night. It's not my main study Bible, but I enjoy reading it. Why put unnecessary barriers in front of people that would make it hard for them to read and understand God's Word?

When looking at children's literacy, we understand that there are a range of different reading levels, and there are different kinds of books that cater to this. However, when we see an adult, especially in Western culture, we assume they can read and do so at a reasonable level. 

My view of this was challenged recently when I watched an excellent SBS documentary series called 'Lost for Words'. Across three episodes, it followed eight adult Australians with literacy challenges. Two of them could only recognise a few sight words. The others could read a bit, but had trouble with a lot of everyday reading tasks that most of us would take for granted; such as reading a public transport timetable, sending an email or looking for ingredients in a supermarket. They were placed into an intensive reading program, and it was amazing to see their progress over the course of the series. If you're in Australia, you can watch the series on SBS On Demand

When we write for adults, do we assume everyone has a high reading level? Do we dig out the thesaurus to find fancy words? When writing Christian books, devotions and study guides, do we use Christian jargon that a lot of Christians wouldn't even understand? Do we see an adult reading a comic book and secretly think they should have left those behind in childhood? Do we inadvertently leave people out of 'the conversation' because they can't read it and understand it?  I'm talking to myself here as much as anyone. 

So What Can We Do?

  • Many people with reading challenges have been shamed in the past and have become adept at hiding their gaps in literacy. Let's watch our own attitudes, expectations and stereotypes and try to create an atmosphere in which people with literacy challenges feel accepted rather than further shamed or stigmatised. 
  • Think about our audience. Are they people with theological degrees? People who've successfully completed high school? The average person on the street? That 'average' person may be someone with a learning disability, someone who has English as a second language, someone who had disrupted schooling due to family trauma. How do we craft our words so that we don't exclude people?
  • By all means use a thesaurus to help you think of other words for variety or for different shades of meaning. But don't use a thesaurus to come up with highfalutin words that make you look clever without regard for the reader. (Actually, 'highfalutin' might be one of those highfalutin words!)
  • If you have to use an unfamiliar or technical term, use context to help the reader grasp what you mean. For example, if you're writing a book set in the 1800s, you might want to use the term 'portmanteau' rather than 'suitcase', as it's more historically accurate. However, you can help the reader by hinting at its use. For example, 'Helena packed her clothes in the new portmanteau she'd bought for the trip.' If you have a lot of technical terms, you could also consider using a glossary. It's not about 'dumbing down'. If we believe God wants us to share his love through our stories, memoirs, poetry, devotions and more, shouldn't we do our best to make our words clear? 
  • Think of alternative ways of presenting your material. For example, audiobooks are wonderful for people who find reading difficult. However, you still need to make the language accessible. Depending on the type of work you've written, summaries and recaps can also help. For example, mystery novels often have sections where two or more characters get up to speed on the latest clues or evidence.
  • Children's stories are often presented in different ways for different reading levels. For example, books featuring superheroes or the characters from children's films such as 'Frozen', have been produced as picture books, early readers, chapter books, comic books, graphic novels and junior novellas or novels. Could our work for adults also be presented in different ways? 

So what happened to the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post? She did buy a different version of the Bible, and God obviously blessed her with his Word because she's still a Christian today and going strong with the Lord. In spite of all of our efforts, we need to remember that it's the Holy Spirit who helps us to understand God's Word in spite of human failings. May the Holy Spirit guide us as we seek to share the message God has placed on our hearts.

Further Reading

In a recent post about adult literacy for the ACW site, I included some further suggestions and links to literacy organisations and resources. You can read it here.

Photo Credits

Featured photo of alphabet by Monfocus on Pixabay.

Girl holding Bible by Tep Ro on Pixabay.

Comics from the author's collection. (Yes, she still reads comics!)

Author Bio

Nola Lorraine (aka Nola Passmore) has a passion for faith and social justice issues, and loves weaving words that inspire others with courage and hope. Her inspirational historical novel Scattered was published in 2020, and she has also co-edited the Christian charity anthology Glimpses of Light with Jeanette O’Hagan. She has more than 150 short publications, including fiction, poetry, devotions, true stories, magazine articles and academic papers. She and her husband Tim also run a freelance writing and editing business, The Write Flourish, from the home they share with their two adorable cavoodles in southeast Queensland, Australia. She’d love to connect with you through her website:



  1. My husband has a good vocabulary of words. Although English was my top subject, I often did not know words he used in our dating days. I did not let him know my ignorance but remembered the words and checked the dictionary when I got home. I guess it was an interesting way to expand my vocabulary!

    1. What a great story, Heather. Maybe he was looking up a dictionary before your dates so he could impress you with those big words. I love the feature in Kindle where you can just click a word to get its meaning. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I try to write for a particular audience (varying, depending on the book and its content) and to use words they'll understand. Not saying I always pull it off but that's my intention. Yes, interesting article, thanks Nola.

    1. That's great, Jeanette. I'm sure I don't always pull it off either, but being aware is part of the battle. I think I was writing this blog to myself as much as anyone else. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Good point Nola. I sometimes forget and use unnecessary Christian jargon - I need an editor to remind me!

    One thing that concerned me about Lost for Words, was when they went shopping and then cooked a meal. It just seemed like an unnecessarily complicated recipe to me.

    Also, I was talking to my son one day about Bible translations and he said, "The best translation is the one you read." What's the point of having a highly academic translation if you never read it?

    1. Hi Susan - Yes, it did seem like a complicated recipe, but I thought it was an eye-opening episode. I'd never really considered that people might have trouble finding things in supermarkets because they can't read the labels (like salted vs unsalted butter). But yes, they certainly gave them a complicated list of things to find.

      I think the Christian jargon one is something we all have to think about. Sometimes there is a specific term you want to use. However, I have occasionally had someone send me a manuscript that they think is suitable for 'anyone out there', and there's so much Christian jargon on the first page that you just know a lot of people won't know what they mean. Even Christians don't necessarily know a lot of the terms. Getting that balance can be tricky.

      And that's a great comment from your son about Bible translations. Yes, much better to have one you'll actually read. There are even graphic novel Bibles now and they're not just popular with kids. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Hi Nola. Thanks for your insights. It was a great series on SBS and put the spotlight on the gaps in education too. Was also listening to another conversation about innumeracy which seems to be more socially acceptable! As far as writing I am learning to be clear, rather than decorative and sometimes all those beautiful darling words just have to go!

    1. Hi Raelene - Yes I think you're right there. We assume not everyone is good at maths and we're probably a lot more forgiving of that (as long as we get the right change at the supermarket). I wasn't aware until recently that there are also some learning disabilities associated with numbers (though in hindsight it seems obvious). And yes, sometimes we have to throw out those darlings. The trick is working out how to write beautifully, but still being clear. It's a work in progress. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Thankyou Nola,
    I am inspired to dig into my Graphic Novel concepts and layer my access for adult readers who can "read the pictures" and give them access to reading language accessible to their levels :)