The child literacy problem in the UK

The reality of the literacy problem in the UK

In 2001, the government revealed that 7 million adults struggle everyday with reading, writing and maths. This lack of basic literacy and numeric skills renders individuals unable to compete effectively in the job marketplace, having to accept more lowly paid and low status employment, often leading to a lack of self worth, a tendency to ill health and a feeling of social exclusion.

The ‘Get On’ campaign as part of government's ‘Skills for Life’ strategy

In an effort to improve the quality of life for these adults, the government launched the ‘Get on’ campaign as part of their Skills for Life strategy. The strategy's aim is to raise the basic skills levels of 750,000 adults by 2004 and of 1.5 million adults in total by 2007. In the campaign, gremlins represent the literacy and numeric problems people face, and the advertisements encourage the audience to get rid of their gremlins by seeking more information on local basic skills courses. To maximise effect, a multi media approach is involved and radio, outdoor posters, buses, bus tickets and beer mats have all been employed; and the government's first interactive television advertisement has been produced to encourage the audience to send off for a free learner information pack and CD.

Literacy problem not confined to adults

This literacy problem is not confined to adults, however. The post-modern child is bombarded by visual and aural stimuli, with half of those aged 9 years or more having a TV set in their bedroom, and a similar number having electronic games consoles or computers to use at will for their own private entertainment. This constant exposure to images and sounds can lead to lower boredom thresholds. With diminishing attention spans, children are finding concentration more difficult and reading is affected. When combined with increasing isolation from parents and adult influence, it is evident there is an effect on language development, too. Indeed, recent qualitative research commissioned with KWR by COI Communications revealed that many 11-14 year olds refuse to read because “it makes them tired” and “it is too much of a chore”, while others exhibited quite some difficulty in expressing themselves.

Conundrum of increased information but in inaccessible forms

Yet access to information has increased significantly in the last 5–10 years with the explosion of media options available. The current government's stated commitment to empowering the people through information and knowledge has reinforced this trend, with information packs and fact-sheets available on almost any subject from central and local government. Mostly available in text form, these options alone are not realistic for the less literate audiences.

Legislation is rife, too. Qualifiers, warnings, terms and conditions predominate in many written communications, making text too lengthy and inaccessible to all but the most determined or the professional. The very rules that have been designed to protect the consumer prevent him/ her from reading and certainly understanding exactly what it is he/ she is purchasing.

How, then, can we address this conundrum: a mass of information available but often in a form its very consumer target doesn't want and won't read?

The rapidly changing media environment

The rapid way in which the media environment has changed over the last few years has had immense consequences in terms of economic performance, democratic participation, cultural activity and even quality of life. Not all other factors can adapt as quickly and technologies, organisations and social change are by and large slower to adjust.

Advertising, marketing and market research professionals identify landmarks

Research conducted in 2002 by KWR with advertising, marketing and research professionals points up the most dramatic landmarks in the development of today's media channels during the last ten years: the advent of the internet/ internet campaigns, emails, mobile phone texting, ambient media and PDAs beginning to take off. The increasing trend towards integrated media approaches tends to suggest that using one media only can even diminish the status of a campaign.

Other factors come into play, too such as audience behaviours and sophistication. For example, television watching is changing as Catherine Blizzard, Head of Research at COI Communications (November 2002) reports, and more imaginative use of media with a range of different formats has to be employed to create awareness and impact:

"Audience behaviour has also led the development of different media … people have more money to go out and about a lot more. A lot of the desirable audiences, the young for instance, don’t sit down and watch the telly with Mum or Dad anymore, so we have to find new innovative ways to reach them"

Consumers, particularly young adults, are heavily into multi-tasking, for instance, listening to the radio while playing on the computer or surfing the Internet. The take-up of satellite television means that young people today have grown up with Sky and are totally familiar with an enormous spread of TV channel choices. For the less literate and more excluded audiences, the mobile telephone is a big part of their lives, with a new form of language emerging for texting, as Alison Black (December 2002) attests:

"The more disenfranchised you are, the more likely to have a mobile … phones do so much else, and are part of your life"

On the other hand, audiences grow ever more sophisticated too, and are able to decode and understand marketing messages and the media through which these are conveyed. Yet from the Head of COI Radio, Brian Jenkins (November 2002), bite-sized communications are very much the order of the day, with little or no opportunity for scene setting or pre-amble.

"Young people are saying ‘Throw it all at me and I'll pick and choose’ … everyone is far more literate now. For example, advertising now is in short form: more concise messages are needed and taking news stories for instance, they are being run in 20 seconds"

The need to understand how media connects

To survive and grow, marketers and advertisers need to develop a deep understanding of the way in which each media connects to different target audiences as well as to other media. This calls for different and new working relationships. Some clients even opt for a dual approach to advertising and media spend. COI Communications, for example, is committed to appointed media and advertising agencies working together to effect optimum results.

Arguably, media owners provide reliable audience research to advertisers for mainstream targets although media research for the more difficult to reach or disenfranchised audiences is much more difficult to come by.  Normative data for integrated campaigns is harder to achieve, too.

According to Brian Aspin (September 2002), head of media development at the Royal Mail, we need to be realistic about how useful such audience research alone can be. In the recent Media Review in Research, he calls for a more comprehensive and multi-faceted approach in which the gap is bridged between attitudinal segmentation from sample research on the one hand, and actual behaviour captured by databases on the other hand. Only then, he believes, can a complete picture of the consumer be obtained to form a genuinely media neutral solution.

"Media neutral planning puts the consumer, rather than any prejudice or vested interest, at the centre of the media plan. Thus media plans would, in a neutral world, be based on a detailed understanding of key relationships between the consumer, the brand and all potential media options. This obviously has fundamental implications both for market researchers and for planners"

Qualitative research to inform process

Against this backdrop, what can we as qualitative researchers do, to help reach the audiences who are difficult to reach, particularly the less literate targets?

Engage qualitative researchers' help at outset

If employed early on in the process, we are in a unique position to help direct the marketing effort in the most motivating way to the optimum number and combination of channels. The consumer is at the core of our thinking, and who else is better placed to understand the best ways to connect with them and to inform a neutral media planning process?

From our broad based perspective, we are familiar with working alongside a number of different disciplines (e.g. marketing, advertising, communications, design etc.) With informed input at the strategic level of debate rather than (as is more usual) towards the end of the creative development process, we can lead thought processes about how consumers we know well really think and feel. Moving qualitative research up the management agenda acknowledges the part it has to play in understanding the context in which consumers live, and the social and cultural group to which consumers belong.

True views of difficult to reach audiences obtained

It is only through the process of qualitative research that the true views of these difficult to reach audiences can be accurately accessed. From practice and experience (and by observing and listening to our audience) we are able to interpret beyond what they think they do, to what they actually do and feel.

Recruitment is a key issue for these illiterate (and often ignored) audiences. In conventional research, some 2–3 weeks is allowed for the recruitment of most qualitative samples. This is believed adequate to locate the sample and recruit the quota to research interviews in most cases.

With more difficult to reach audiences, the picture is very different and qualitative researchers working in the sector need to educate clients that a more time-consuming and costly approach is required to provide adequate and accurate research. Here, a research panel operating within specific communities may be more relevant and cost-effective.

A longer and more involved recruitment phase is needed in which researchers first gain the trust of the audiences they wish to research. We believe this is best achieved by researchers and recruiters physically entering the communities in which the disenfranchised live, building contacts and embedding themselves in the local culture before recruitment or research begins. Leads are generated more effectively to the desired audience and a more complete research sample can be obtained; while direct access to the target audience within its own community allows researchers to observe at first hand the way in which they function and the main media influences at work within each community.

Importantly, such observation and research provide the opportunity to identify the priority afforded the marketing and informational messages we seek to evaluate, within the context of life in that community.

In more socially deprived areas, this pursuit of mutual trust by recruiters and researchers cannot be undertaken lightly. Exploration of local community centres, cafes, social clubs, tenants' meetings while liasing with local police is best not conducted alone, but with the help of some accepted local representative, such as a cab driver or newspaper vendor. To inspire the confidence of the community we seek to research, it is clear much more time is involved, and few clients are prepared to wait for a better recruited sample and much more in-depth research. As Annie Rothwell (November 2002) comments:

"People right down the social scale won't come to us … we need to talk to them where they are prepared to talk to us, by building contacts with the communities first…each local community will need its own tailored approach, and as with informational campaigns, you can't apply a template and roll it out nationally…we need to understand their priorities, too: a green belt plan won't interest someone whose got cockroaches in their flat and the loo doesn't work"

Similarly, research methods should not be rigourously applied. Our aim should be to get as close as possible to the point at which the consumer interacts with the brand, product, service or information in question, and we need not to be process-driven in this pursuit. If this involves a number of different contexts, then research methods should reflect this so that a more holistic approach is adopted.

The less literate audience is not likely to take heed of press advertisements or point of sale material for financial services, for instance, so we must identify what and where other influences exist in their world. Observational research may well be more relevant and accurate for these individuals, whose fears about self-expression may well discount group discussions and one to one depth interviews.

Revisit our qualitative research roots

We must also go back to our roots and recall the psychological theories on which qualitative research is based.

We know about children's stages of cognitive development from Piaget, and therefore the key point at which the written word should come into play. How can we apply this learning to the understanding of information processing in the less literate child? We understand about processing of information in the long-term memory, and the best way to achieve this, too.

Through the work of Wendy Gordon of Acacia Avenue (1999 Good Thinking), we have become aware of the existence of needstates, the complex web of rational, emotional, environmental and personal triggers that lead to a particular brand, product or service choice. How can we apply this to the less skilled individual, who like many of us, does not think in words and sentences?

Examine our own relevant experiences

We need to recall and examine our own experiences. As seasoned interviewers of all types of consumer in all contexts, evaluating an ever expanding range of communication channels, we have learned a great deal about attitudes and behaviour, which can help direct communications and formats more effectively. Our territory is at the heart of communications and without doing any research at all, we are in a position to advise our clients in which ways strategies might best be progressed for different audiences.

As an example, let's refer again to the project KWR conducted for COI Communications, in which potential aural communications for audiences of 11–15 year olds were evaluated. Here, it was clear that sound worked very well as a communication format, in this instance as a secondary communication channel. As part of an informational pack about Science today, the lively CD produced by COI Radio provided a very positive reinforcement of a set of described experiments in the Science pack. Indeed, the less literate children were more than happy to absorb all their information from the soundtrack alone, and were reluctant to even attempt reading the illustrated text version.

Sound plays a very important part in the older child/ young teenage culture. Peers and music go hand in hand, too, for this age group. Music is the medium through which most young people communicate and often around which their young lives revolve. Campaigns directed at the less literate youthful audiences would do well to take note of the importance of sound for this age group, and explore its potential more fully.

Approach qualitative research more creatively

Finally, we ourselves need to approach research more creatively. We should not limit research to the one medium for which research stimulus has been provided. When briefed to evaluate one or two mainstream messages and media for the less literate audiences, qualitative researchers could suggest other additional media choices that could be adopted which, from experience in other projects, seemed to have captured the imagination of that target audience.

When did you last explore the potential in aural media, for example? Would this medium add something to the campaign or would sound encourage the more reluctant readers in the target to listen and take note? Sound tracks or music-based information might provide a much more attractive option for those who do not want to hear particular messages, too.

Possibilities in less mainstream media should thus be explored, and a bank of information built up about different audiences' connections to different media, as main or support vehicles, adding different dimensions to the brand, its story and the campaign. Responses to different combinations of media could be assessed similarly.

We also need to think about stimulus material in a different way and the research community needs to revisit the stimulus material debate. While time is taken to design stimulus for main messages and media, research of more peripheral advertising messages and the increasing range of alternative media is often not as well considered. All advertising and communication ideas need to be represented in a relevant way and realistic context in research, so that research can understand more easily the way in which responses to one media inter-relate with responses to other media in the campaign.

For example, ideas for aural communications should be researched in that context (on tapes, CDs, in mock radio commercial breaks) and not as written scripts, concepts on cardboard or rough descriptions read out by the moderator. Similarly, proposed text messaging for permission-based advertising on mobiles should be presented on mobile phones themselves, and not on flat concept boards. Mock-ups are almost always preferable, but if considered too costly to produce, examples of that media’s use in similar relevant campaigns are acceptable.

By using our creativity, we will be able to inspire our respondents to be more imaginative, so that creative ideas can be translated into more persuasive and well-differentiated advertising and communications.

The need to "get on" not just "get by": your opportunity to contribute to the debate

In what other ways can we help those marketing to the one in five adults who struggles to read and write? How can we as a profession help those marketing to these less literate audiences to ‘get on,’ and not just ‘get by’?

Let us debate these issues openly, honestly and urgently.