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PLAIN Language

Amanda Nally Wall Street Journal

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, Just Cause and Effect co-author Amanda Nally worked in the public service.

Firstly for Motor Registration Centre, a division of what was then The Post Office, mostly she filed papers, they only had partial glide time so while staff didn’t fully appreciate all the nuances of Roger Hall’s Gliding On, the wardrobe ran true – brown cardigans, walk shorts and white socks with roman sandals.

Next stop Housing Corporation – previously State Advances – later would be Housing New Zealand – more corporate in style, particularly after staff volunteered to adopt navy skirts and blazers as a uniform (there was a tie option for the men).

Both organisations had their own special language; in later life she worked alongside other public servants, justice, health, and if course IRD. All with their own idioms. All with staff who insisted their systems were clear, and completely failed to understand anyone else’s language. Nowadays it’s harder and harder to work alongside public servants – the interface is a website (written), where any query is immediately referred to the “frequently asked questions” page. Never, in the history of “frequently asked questions” have we encountered our question.

Truth is, none of it is clear, none of it is “plain language” and whenever you take the people (one you find them) outside their own institution and ask them to interact with someone else’s “plain language” they fail just as quickly as Every Reader.

When Nally became a journalist, also, now, a very long time ago, she was taught to write for a reading age of 10-years, which was, at that time, the reading age of the average news paper reader. We don’t know what the average reading age is now, after several decades of declining literacy and reading scores, but we do know about the declining literacy. Today just 16% of adults have high literacy levels.

When Nally became a business woman, now, a long time ago, factories in Auckland were running in-house literacy programs, two hours a week, teaching basic literacy and numeracy to staff. They reported increased productivity and happier staff – a small investment paying off in spades.

Co author Les Hailes remembered when “look and learn” was introduced as a reading method – at at time when children were smarter than they had ever been, at a time that would later come to be known as “peak Flynn” after Dunedin professor Jim Flynn who charted the rise, then fall, of IQs.

Hailes was not surprised at all by New Zealand’s falling literacy levels – “look and learn” was, he said, a system that only ever worked with smart kids.

Their shared view on accessibility of information is what led to their collaboration on a Just Cause and Effect Selenium Deficiency in New Zealand as fact based book designed specifically for Every Reader, and why they were so thrilled when it was assessed by New Zealand’s leading library supplier as being suitable for young adult readers as well as adult readers.

And that’s also why Write Answers supports the plain language bill, because the illiterate, semi-literate and increasingly even our Every Reader is locked out of society in a way they have never been before.

Once upon a time you could grow up, get a job, marry and raise a family and a mortgage without being able to read or write. Now you can’t even be unemployed without being able to navigate the internet.

The bill, just passed its second reading, is attracting attention internationally too, and as a result they’re talking about us in The Wall Street Journal.

Because there are no coincidences, it’s all, as Les Hailes used to say, Just Cause and Effect – the one book you should read this year.

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