Living Language: Literacy and Prayer Writing

June 28, 2024
Scattered Tiles with Letters

Do you have a sense of the general literacy level of your congregation? If you take time to observe and reflect, you might get a feel for the comfort level for reading among the people you serve. Yet, be aware of your biases and the assumptions that might be shaping your conclusions.

Why does reading level matter? When we are writing prayers, we need to pay attention to whether the vocabulary and sentence structure we use will be accessible to the congregation.

Most people do not read through a print bulletin prior to the service. If you use projection, there is no option to review words ahead of time. The first time people encounter the prayer or Call to Worship is when we invite them to “please join in.” Now they are thrust into reading the words aloud, in unison with a group of people. Where else in society do people read aloud in unison? That practice is quite unique to church.

As worship leaders, our task is to provide worship materials that can be comfortably read aloud in unison. That means having a sense of the literacy level of the gathered community.

Here is some information that might help:

  • Reading comprehension is a complex skill that must be continually practised so it isn’t lost. It involves decoding words, understanding their meaning, and making judgments about what is read.
  • On average in Canada, adults read at or below Grade 7 level. About 40 percent of Canadian adults can’t read well enough to do everyday tasks.*
  • Most popular novels are written at a Grade 7 readability level. Newspapers are written at a Grade 6–8 readability level. But remember, people read newspapers and novels by themselves and have time to make sense of what they are reading. This is a different task than reading aloud in unison as a congregation.
  • When people read for recreation, they prefer material about two grade levels under their actual reading level; that is, on average a Grade 5 level or below. This is on par with the reading level needed to read aloud in unison during worship.

Best-selling authors are able to use plain language to explore challenging and substantial topics. For example, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is written at a Grade 6.6 level. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is written at a Grade 6 level.

You might wonder about being too simplistic for some in your congregation. As writers of worship materials, we too can deal with substantial theological issues while using plainer language. In a communal prayer, we will not likely use words such as “anthropomorphize,” “diaspora,” or “panentheism.” These words are better used in a sermon, where you can explain them.

The key to including the variety of reading levels in a congregation is to use a diversity of approaches so that everyone is included in various ways.

For example, pre-readers, beginning readers, non-readers, and non-visual people of all ages can join in on choruses, repeated lines, psalm responses, and service music that is repeated from week to week. Consider also ways of worshipping that don’t require reading, such as movement, drama, times of silence, visual displays, and conversation.

As you create your service, take time to consider your congregation. Think of the skilled readers, the beginning readers, and the pre-readers, as well as those who, for many different reasons, don’t read. What approaches will invite the participation of everyone in your congregation?

Susan Lukey, Editor

*Canadian results from an International Adult Literacy and Skills survey (2003). Source: Statistics Canada, and Copian/CDEACF (search “Measuring the Literacy Problem in Canada”).