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Working out literacy through plain language

Capilano editor offers tips for better understanding

Nearly half of all Canadian adults struggle with low literacy, according to Statistics Canada.

That's partly why the editor of an award-winning literacy newspaper helped clear things up for educators and others hoping to reach a wider audience during a free workshop at the Squamish Public Library on Jan. 28.

The editor of Capilano University's The Westcoast Reader Nila Gopaul guided more than a dozen people through language exercises the day after ABC Canada commemorated Family Literacy Day, which was designed to encourage families to read and learn together.

The Westcoast Reader is a newspaper for adults who are improving their English reading skills. The newspaper is written at a level between Grades 2 and 4 in order facilitate greater knowledge and growth across the population.

The key to greater understanding, both written and verbally, is plain language, said Gopaul.

"It's simple and direct, but it's not dumbing down," she said.

One of the language exercises Gopaul guided required participants to rewrite convoluted paragraphs in a condensed way that is easier to understand. Another involved comparing two versions of a medical prescription label. Everyday instructions can be made easier to understand with choice words and use of space, said Gopaul.

Plain language encourages the use of words that the average person understands and suggests using personal pronouns like "you" and "your" when giving instructions. It also promotes stressing key words while using tools such as bold letters, headlines and illustrations to highlight central ideas.

Gopaul's mother, Nancy Carson, helped put plain language in everyday context by telling a story about trying to fetch a construction tool for her father when she was a child. Her father asked her to retrieve a level and gave a series of descriptions to help her find the appropriate tool: it's made of wood, it has metal on it, and so on.

Carson said she tried but couldn't figure out which tool was the level so she returned to her father empty handed. Her father later picked out the level for her.

"And I said, 'you didn't tell me there were bubbles in it,'" Carson said at the end of her story.

The point Carson made was that there are key words and descriptions that can be used to communicate. The only description her father needed to focus on was the level's bubbles, which separate the level out from all the other tools.

Gopaul suggested a website,, which calculates the grade level of a sentence or paragraph in order to determine language difficulty. The website can help eliminate unnecessary words so that people and businesses are better understood by the intended readers.

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