1 in 7 Workers Can’t Read Your Manual. What’s a Trainer To Do?

On September 8, the world observed International Literacy Day, a day first designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Illiteracy is a worldwide challenge — the cost of illiteracy to the global economy has been estimated at more than a trillion dollars.

In the United States, literacy rates among adults have proven stubbornly consistent. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute of Literacy, 14 percent of adults — 32 million people in all — have “below basic” reading skills. Another 29% score only “basic.” And those figures haven’t changed significantly since at least 1992.

The great challenge to solving adult literacy is that illiteracy often hides in plain sight. As researcher Phillip Schlechty notes, “99% of adults can read in the sense that they can decode words. The illiteracy rate that concerns us today is the functional illiteracy rate — the huge number of adult Americans that cannot read well enough to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”

For corporate communications and training teams, these are not abstract numbers.

Contributing to adult illiteracy are a host of complex social and economic issues. Yet while the world looks to public and private organizations to address the root causes in the future, employers need to take steps to manage the impact of illiteracy today.

Specifically, for anyone involved in organizational training and communications, this data presents a very practical question: can you rely on the written word alone to ensure that every team member is effectively prepared to do what’s required by their job?

Trainers cannot assume that illiteracy is “someone else’s problem.”

2 in 3 of the 32 million functionally illiterate adults in America are employed in the workforce. The challenge that functional illiteracy represents to learning organizations is that it can be exceptionally difficult to detect.

Contributing to this challenge is the fact that many jobs don’t require anything more than basic reading skills. Many people who struggle to read will naturally select positions that play to their other strengths, such as interpersonal skills or quantitative reasoning. These tendencies will impact different employers differently. There are a few common themes organizations should keep in mind, however.

For industries where skills other than reading may be more important day to day

Illiteracy often filters individuals into roles where reading isn’t essential to successful performance. These positions can be found everywhere, from the expanding service sector to manual trades.

Yet, while functional literacy may be sufficient for day-to-day job performance, it can still be a hindrance when training is concerned. Often manual- and service-oriented positions are heavily reliant on specific types of training, from OSHA safety compliance to organizational standards for performance and execution. Spelling out these details only in the company handbook underserves those employees who may struggle to read.

For industries where essential skills are learned via apprenticeship

Many people who find reading challenging are also filtered into roles where requisite skills and abilities are taught not via textbook, but through apprenticeship and mentorship. Positions in select manufacturing, heavy equipment, and production facilities rely on employees who first and foremost know how to make the machines run their best — institutional knowledge commonly learned and shared socially.

Here too, trainers must be diligent. Production environments can be dangerous places if signs or manuals are misunderstood. Adopting training techniques that borrow from interpersonal social learning may help ensure important messages are heard by everyone.

For knowledge worker industries

Functional illiteracy also impacts the high-tech knowledge economy.  George Washington University estimates that today 10% of students are english as a second language (ESL) learners, a figure that’s on the rise. The growth in ESL students in fields like computer engineering, biochemistry, information science, medicine and other technical fields today means that many new knowledge workers won’t read English as their first language.

That trend, in turn, can present a significant challenge to businesses, who today often rely on text-only communication to convey benefits information, information retention policies, and other internal communications.

Employee development teams must find a better way to train.

Organizations must begin looking at adult literacy as simply another factor at play in employees’ learning styles — a personal tendency not dissimilar from preferring auditory or kinesthetic modes of training and instruction.

Chief Learning Officer has published an excellent and detailed look into what adult illiteracy means to the modern learning and development organization, and notes that supporting employees who struggle to read doesn’t mean organizations need to begin offering basic reading courses. Rather, trainers simply need to identify alternative communications strategies that, coupled with text or delivered independently, can impart the essential information.

Making training visual is a key to making training accessible to everyone.

CLO cites the work of Lou Tetlan, founder of the neurolearning research organization CID Group and adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine. According to Tetlan, “The written word itself can get in the way of learning and understanding. Solving that problem may require only something as simple as changing and adapting a format.”

In experiments, Tetlan and her organization have found that when information is chunked into flowcharts and diagrams, both proficient and remedial readers reported that the visual-based versions were more engaging and easier to understand and remember. Other studies have demonstrated this is a lasting effect — including visuals like video along with text in training materials has shown to be 9 percent more effective than text alone when comprehension is tested right away, but 83 percent more effective when testing was delayed, implying an improved ability for everyone to remember the information better later.

A training recording that marries text, visuals, and a presentation.


Adult illiteracy is a real concern for one in seven members of the US workforce. Adequately supporting those team members is a challenge to learning and development organizations that’s gone unanswered for too long. International Illiteracy Day is a reminder that this needs to change today.

Has your organization taken steps to support training for team members who struggle with reading? We’d love to hear your story. Tweet us, @Panopto.


Published: September 11, 2015