I’m running a food safety course, in Rosebud, Victoria.
What would normally be quite a quick theory section, is taking much, much longer than expected. Some of the guys in the football club, who are tasked with running the BBQ on the weekend, have to get this certificate in order to be allowed to cook.
But they can’t read. I can see that despite their bravado, it’s devastating for them to be in a classroom for the first time in maybe three decades, and be asking the 17 year old beside them for help.
Some quick thinking helped me build a connection with them and maintain their dignity. With questions and answer done verbally, demonstrations of skill and a discussion of the case studies and scenarios, they proved their competency.
I know the rules, I know the requirements. And I know that those guys know how to cook safely, and so I sign off on their training assessments, confident they will keep their customers health in their minds and make food safe to eat.
But not every trainer is the same. Some say that if you can’t write, you can’t pass!
That’s just rubbish. Where does it say you need to write the answer “wash your hands” in order to make a burger without anyone getting sick.
It is one of the most dramatic realities of the modern era. And it highlights the failure of traditional education in its current form.
Giant class sizes, schools doubling in number within 10 years, and no increase in teachers means that those at the bottom of the ladder get forgotten, and just carried along year after year until they can be allowed to leave.
Within 5 years of finishing high school, without further study most people read at a 7th grade level.
And even those that continue study only become good at reading in their specific niche or career choice.
Those that slip through the cracks may be as low as 2nd or 3rd grade, if they can read at all.
Doctors, lawyers, electricians and plumbers. Within 5 years of leaving school, your basic grammar skills have plummeted. Your ability to spell. To remember what a verb, an adjective and a noun are.
We may have some specific language of our industry, but we revert to the simple reading we did as kids.
Because reading big words is hard. They’re complicated, they confuse us, and they make for a lot of people frustrated when they learn.
It’s one of the modern day challenges for educators around the world. Literacy levels in the Western world are embarrassing. And it leads to adults who don’t understand the big words that “intelligent” people like to use.
I have studied the people in this world who teach, and I have worked with thousands of people that are the students.
The students who want to learn, and yet are handicapped by the way they were taught in school. They are let into adulthood without the skills they need to gain the knowledge and the growth they want to have the life they need.
I’ve trained 50 year old men who can’t read a single word, relying on friends and families around them to interpret and understand signs, posters, menus and other common tasks we take for granted.
It becomes a terrible tragedy when we as trainers and teachers cannot get our message through because of the education before we met our student.
But it’s still our responsibility to get our message through. The person in front of us needs our knowledge to help them progress. That is why they are there, and that is why you are there.
Don’t be mistaken, just because someone is well dressed and looks confident, they may have a reading level lower than their children.
And the shabbily dressed person sitting in the back row might have a University Education!
So we can’t judge – and we can’t just ask “Hey, anyone here illiterate?” We need to aim our talk at the lowest common denominator. The person who can understand everything because we present it simply enough.
If we aim any higher, we are speaking. But no-one is listening. This is a challenge for some trainers.
Because they want to sound important, intelligent and sometimes superior to the people they are talking to.
Before we judge – it makes sense!
People spend their working career learning to be good at something. They spend even more time on top of that learning how to teach others.
Sometimes the teaching is thrust upon them by a boss – because they’re good at what they do they naturally become the workplace trainer.
The girl who gets every new receptionist and has to train them in the way of doing their business – because she was once a great receptionist.
The salesman who sells the most and then has to show others how he speaks and closes the sale. Because of his results – he becomes the trainer.
Or just the person who is easy-going and likes learning.
Before you know it, you have a successful person who resents the job they’ve been given to teach the newbies. Now they can’t do what they love – their talent and they are instead forced to train in an endless cycle. Till they quit, and their manager wonders what happened.
People have a skill, let them do it to their best ability. Don’t shift people away from it – at least not all of the time.
Others take the training role and love it! They move into training as their career choice and become professionals.
So they do the natural thing. They take more classes. Get more qualifications.
And end up with a long list of things they know, but can no longer do.
Before you know it, they’ve been doing it for 10 years! The challenge is – their stories are 10-15 years old.
They have knowledge, but none of it practical anymore. It’s out of date and irrelevant.
They have the certificates and pieces of paper, but it’s theory. Not experience. And so they continue. Because no-one else wants their job, or there is no-one to replace them.
They create their own challenges, writing harder and harder lessons, using bigger language than anyone can understand.
It’s the worst kind of punishment for students that want to learn, but are not being given a fair chance.
Training should be a natural extension of our knowledge and experience, shared with someone who wants to learn. And so, it’s our responsibility to make it easy for them to learn and understand and have the information we are teaching them stick.
Otherwise we are just wasting out time jabbering in front of people who pretend they are listening, when they are often sitting there thinking “what is he saying? I’ll look it up somewhere else easier later.”
You want your audience hungry to hear you again. Hanging on your every word. Because they understand it, they get it, they want more.
So how do you do this? How do you become the trainer that everyone loves? What can you do to simplify your training so people can understand it and you can get the results from your training that are required from you by your manager, your boss, and your students!
Here are a few simple approaches you can take to not only being more aware of the literacy issue – but you can then apply to help get your message across for anyone to understand.
Test their literacy level. It’s common sense, but not something we think about in a company or in a room of strangers. When we’re training people you can test very quickly a number of ways.
You can use a few big words and check for understanding. While you’re in the early part of your talk, use a few complex sentences or big words and watch their faces. Are they smiling, nodding, agreeing? Or are they looking at you with a question on their face – you know, when they twist their head around and look uncertain. Do they ask you “what does that mean” with their eyes or by asking a question.
You can give a written test or quiz. Based on how long it takes people to complete it, and how well they answer it, you can get a reasonable idea of their literacy and/or numeracy levels.
This form of test is given in Vocational training in Australia to all students that are undergoing training courses. It’s a government requirement and I think it’s a good thing.
The tests cover skill levels in Speaking, Reading, Listening, Numeracy and Communication. It can paint a picture of where you need to focus your training to help them understand. Of course this only really works one-on-one. You can’t train a group of 20-100 people adjusting every single aspect on a minute-by- minute basis. It’s just not practical.
You can simplify your talk.
This is the best way to get the maximum return on your speaking or training investment of time.
You speak simply enough for people to understand you, because you write your training material at a 7th grade level.
How do you do that?
Most training talks, lesson plans, speeches and presentations are written out. And in word processors, as well as with online tools, the reading level or high school grade is calculated by the software.
For example, this sentence is 10th grade level
“The crowd, incited by the injurious injustice, clamored for clemency and cried out voraciously.”
Maybe it’s even higher. A lot of big words. Looks like it came from an “intelligent” newspaper.
This sentence is 6th or 7th grade level.
“The crowd were yelling at police, because of the fine given to the woman who had simply wanted to feed her baby in public.”
Same situation, one is complex and tells you nothing about what happened, just talks at you. The other tells a simple story that paints a picture of what happened.
Your training will always work better when you simplify the material you are delivering to help your audience process it in one of the three primary senses.
Seeing it – painting a picture with your words so they can visually represent it and understand it.
Hearing it – speaking at a speed and with a simplicity that doesn’t confuse them
Feeling it – If you’re a man or woman who believes in a woman’s right to feed her baby wherever she needs to, the story above gave you a feeling of indignation and you instantly defended her.
If you can create feelings in your audience that’s great. But for those who need to see it, need to hear it, you have to cover all three areas.
So check the grammar and the grade level of your writing. It’s easy to replace one big word with three smaller words.
And people will tell you they ‘get it’. Instead of them shaking their head or pretending to listen and understand.
But remember that the responsibility lies with you. So change your training materials, your training style, and your mindset, so that ‘no-one gets left behind’. Keep it simple, it will make your training more effective every single time.
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