The Average American Reader Needs You to Write (Even More) Clearly

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM ET

Hosted by and the Plain Language Community of Practice


This presentation (PDF, 3.6 MB, 51 pages), crafted by Dr. Meredith Larson of the U.S. Department of Education, offers detailed information on literacy skills of U.S. adults, including digital literacy, and the implications for communicating with the public.

When communicating with the public, we must change our assumptions about their ability to understand text. This is especially true when the information keeps changing and is complex, or the stakes are high and people are in crisis.

Over 50% of U.S. adults score below an international benchmark for literacy, with roughly 20% scoring at the very lowest levels. These adults span all demographics and are a part of your audience. Don’t assume they’re not.

You must communicate clearly with your audience. Keep it simple and convenient, and use plain language. Present the most important information you want to convey first. Get feedback from your readers on whether they understand the information you’re trying to convey.

One of the most important things we know about writing is to have some idea of your audience and whom you might be writing for.—Dr. Meredith Larson, Department of Education


The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is an international, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study used to assess the skills of literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving in adults between the ages of 16 and 65. After collecting information on how their country’s population is performing, leaders can better target and help their people get access to the resources they need.

Basic Skills Assessed

PIAAC is designed to assess adults in different countries over a broad range of abilities, from simple reading to complex problem-solving skills. A country can check how its population stands in relation to the rest of the participating countries.

PIAAC has four domains:

1. Literacy

“Literacy is understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written text to participate in the society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” [PIAAC Literacy Domain Page](<

2. Numeracy

“The ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” PIAAC Numeracy Domain Page.


Literacy and Numeracy has a 5-point scale.

We might consider adults scoring Below Level 1 and Level 1 “at risk”, and Level 2 may be “struggling.”

For Literacy and Numeracy, Level 3 should be sufficient for participation in modern economies.

The Skill Scales: Literacy and Numeracy

  • Below Level 1: Locate a single piece of information in familiar texts.
  • Level 1: Read relatively short digital print or mixed texts to locate single text.
  • Level 2: Make matches between text and information that may require low level paraphrasing and drawing low-level inferences.
  • Level 3: Identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information and often require varying levels of inference.
  • Level 4: Perform multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret, or synthesize information from complex texts, and may require complex inferences.
  • Level 5: Integrate information across multiple dense texts; construct syntheses, ideas or points of view; or evaluate evidence based arguments.

3. Digital Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments

“Using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” PIAAC Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Domain Page.


Digital Problem Solving has a 3-point scale.

For Digital Problem Solving, Level 2 should be sufficient for participation in modern economies.

The Skill Scales: Digital Problem Solving

  • Level 0: One-step or simple problem (“Click on Help tab”).
  • Level 1: Sorting emails into existing folders.
  • Level 2: Using website to return item.
  • Level 3: Navigating multiple pages to find a form, etc.

4. Reading Components

“Focuses on elements of reading that are comparable across the range of languages in the participating countries: reading vocabulary, sentence comprehension, and basic passage comprehension.” PIAAC Reading Components Domain Page.

How the United States ranks

The majority of US adults may struggle with reading and understanding written instructions; using numeric information, graphs, or charts to answer questions; and performing tasks with digital tools, such as websites, software applications, etc.

You can assume that at least half of your audience needs help. Find an interactive map that depicts state-level and county-level estimates of literacy and numeracy skills.

One of the most important things to know about writing is to have some idea of your audience and whom you might be writing for in order to put your resources and energy in the right place. If you know your audience is from a specific demographic group and more likely to be at risk, or if you know they are more likely to be from a proficient group, you should take different approaches. Below are answers to some basic demographic questions you should consider when analyzing your audience:


Are those scoring below a sufficient level …

  • Old or young? Answer: No. Low skills are fairly evenly distributed across age groups.
  • Non-native speakers? Answer: No. We cannot assume it’s just a language issue.
  • Unemployed? Answer: No. Most (62%) are employed.
  • Have a low education level? Answer: Yes and no. Even those with college educations can have low literacy.
  • Mostly women or men? Answer: Women and men perform similarly.
  • Correlated by race and ethnicity? Answer: Yes, Some race/ethnicities are more likely to have lower rates of literacy.
  • More likely in a particular region of the country? Answer: Yes. The south has a higher rate of low literacy.
  • Want to know more? Review results of studies on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) International Data Explorer (IDE).

Overall: Approximately 112.6 million adults are at or below Level 2 in literacy. Of these, 40.2 million at or below Level 1. Find out more by reviewing the National Center for Education Statistics study, Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).


Dr. Meredith Larson is a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Research, with a focus on postsecondary and adult education. She oversees research projects and initiatives relevant to addressing the skill and attainment gaps of adults and improving their academic outcomes. Dr. Larson earned a master’s degree in cognitive and instructional psychology and a doctorate in psycholinguistics.

This meeting is hosted by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a community of federal employees dedicated to the idea that citizens deserve clear communications from the government.

In this talk

Originally posted by Katherine Spivey on May 13, 2020

GSA | Washington D.C.

Originally posted by Meredith Larson on May 13, 2020

Dept. of Ed