Mind your language

There has also been the centre of a fierce row between government and the teaching union over literacy and numeracy testing.

While there are sideline issues over how this so-called Naplan information is used, I find it extraordinary that there can be any credible opposition to increasing the focus on literacy and numeracy.

Spelling used to be a fundamental part of the old fashioned three “Rs” of education – reading, writing and arithmetic. In fact, and this is aging myself, spelling was still a required subject in the mid-year Leaving Certificate examination when I finished high school in 1961.

It is estimated 53 per cent of Australian residents are not competent in literacy and 46 per cent are no competent in numeracy.

These are scary figures but more so when you consider the projected population explosion between now and 2050, and the increasing demand for skilled workers needed to meet the infrastructure requirements to cater for this.

Industry leaders say the unsatisfactorily low level of literacy and numeracy, which covers those currently in the workforce and people seeking to re-enter or acquire additional skills training, poses a real threat to productivity and safety standards.

This has been reinforced in a survey conducted by the Australian Industry Group (AIG) among its member companies, which employ more than 750,000 workers around the country.

It found many workers cannot read or understand standard operating procedures, which in turn can trigger safety issues and the poor use of machinery.

A number of the AIG’s members reported an inability of their employees to be able to read drawings, which led to sub-standard workmanship.

So what does this have to do with the newspaper publishing business?

For a start, there seems to be an increasing tendency to dumb down the written and spoken word.

Chris Pash, the director of content licensing for Dow Jones Asia-Pacific, also an author and former journalist, has appropriately thrown the spotlight on the lazy use of clichés in the media.

The cliché report which Pash presented to an e-seminar organised by the Newspaper Publishers’ Association (NPA) recently was very timely.

Bad and lazy as this practice is, it is only part, and probably the least offensive, abuse of the media’s art of communication.

Journalists are increasingly engaging in “police-blotter-speak” reporting that someone has been charged with break and enter, for example, when the offence is breaking and entering, regardless of what the police charge sheet says.

This annoying practice of parroting police jargon is particularly evident on radio news broadcasts.

Meanwhile, people apparently don’t try “to” do something anymore they try “and” do it.

They “lay down” rather than “lie down” and “take off” someone rather than “take from” someone.

The surge in social networking has given birth to a new language, which is further driving down traditional communication skills.

This is a trap which the established media organisations must avoid falling into as they try to relate to a generation, which is creating and sharing its own content.

Because of its ubiquitous nature, media at all levels has a vital role to play in upholding and encouraging literacy skills.

Rapidly advancing technology resulted in the Readers’ Room, where galley proofs of all editorial content were checked before publication, disappearing years ago.

But the responsibility for maintaining the highest standards of language communication is still there – it has simply moved from the backroom to the frontline.

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