Literacy does not just mean being able to read, but also refers to how well you cope with the written language. This is greatly affected by the number of words you heard or read as a child, or have learned since.For this reason, immigrants often have low literacy levels in the language of their new country. Improving literacy is something you can work on at any time, on your own, without going to school or taking special programs.
Nearly all publications thus reduce the complexity of written communications, as measured by various readability indicators. This is undoubtedly a sensible idea for communicating with and appealing to the majority of people. However, if you as an individual want to improve your word power, you should head in the opposite direction. Time Magazine and Newsweek are only written at a Grade 10 level and most popular novels are at a Grade 7 to 10 level. If everything you read is at a grade 10 level or less, your literacy level will stagnate. Try to read more challenging material to increase your literacy fitness and earning power.
Give yourself a literacy workout, regularly. Soon, you will see a difference in the way you use words and in the way people react to your input. Here’s how:
- Find articles on the Internet: Look for articles that are interesting but a little difficult or complex to digest. There is almost no limit to the variety of content available on the web, at all levels of difficulty. BNET and Gutenberg are just some examples of great sources of articles and e-books.
Push yourself beyond your comfort level. You may do most of your reading away from the computer, but the Internet is a great place to hone your skills. On the Internet you can identify the difficulty level of different types of reading, as I will explain. In addition you can access online dictionaries and other language resources which can help you.
- Know the complexity of your reading material: Find out where your comfort level is. Copy a sample page from a source or article that interests you and paste it into Google Documents. There you can go to File/Word Count and you will see several readability indicators. I use the Automated Reader Index which indicates the number of years of schooling required to understand a text.
Now try to read content that is a level or two higher, whatever that level is. Keep challenging yourself with harder and harder material until you are comfortable with content that is at an index of 12 or 15 or higher. Once you have an idea of the complexity of different types of reading you can target this kind of content for your off line reading too.
- Measure the richness of the vocabulary: While you have selected text still on your clipboard, go to Tom Cobb’s Vocabulary Profiler. There you can see how many words are within the first 1000 most frequent words, how many are “academic” (AWL), and how many are Off-List words. Try to get to the point where you are comfortable reading material that has around 10% or more words in both the AWL and the Off-List categories. Don’t hesitate to use online dictionaries and other word learning systems for increasing your vocabulary, if you need to.
- Listen and read: If you want to train your brain to become comfortable with complex language content, seek out sites which offer audio with transcripts for free download. Voice of America, and Interesting Things of the Day are but two examples of such sites. To improve your ability to read complex content, listen to the same content as you are reading. This is an effective way to learn languages, and works wonderfully for improving your reading skills, whatever your level.
Writing that seemed unnecessarily complicated or confusing will gradually seem clear. If you are up to it, try something like James Joyce’s Ulysses. I could never read Proust, but I now enjoy him through audio books.
Try an example. Listen to and read this article on Biometrics. It has the following profile:
- Readability Index: 15 years of education
- First 1000 frequency words: 70 %
- Academic Word List words: 8 %
- Off-List words: 13 %
You can train yourself to get used to language that at first seems difficult to understand. As your language skills improve, you will find that your writing and oral expression will also improve. You will not need to take those remedial writing, or “higher level thinking” courses which are offered in college to students with poor literacy skills. And your earning potential will increase, for life.