Much attention has been given to the large number of Americans who are illiterate. Public service commercials appear on television, billboards stress the importance of being able to read, and many people have volunteered to assist those who have never mastered this very important skill.

The emphasis of this campaign to reduce illiteracy has rightfully centered on two major benefits. One is the improvement of opportunities for the individual who overcomes this handicap. He or she will have a greatly improved chance of living a fuller and more productive life. The other is the benefit to the country because of its need for citizens who can function in an increasingly technical world where reading skills are essential.

Marketing research studies can be affected by the literacy levels of those participating in the study. It is important that any written instrument be tested to insure that respondents can read and understand it. One should not take reading skills for granted.

Through most of my career I conducted research with middle- or higher-income groups. I did not give much thought to whether any of the individuals involved might be illiterate. If there were any it was assumed to be such an inconsequential number that the results of the study would not be affected.

I was aware that there are differences in reading abilities. When participants at focus groups were given copy to read it was obvious that some individuals read faster than others. It was a problem when the copy was long because the fast readers finished early and became distracted. But even those who were slower were at least still reading and getting the message.

The importance of knowing literacy abilities became very apparent to me while doing a project a few years ago. It was a study which involved obtaining quantitative and qualitative information from the same individuals. To do this, we held a series of 12 meetings with approximately 40 people attending each meeting.

Each individual would begin by completing a four-page questionnaire. It was estimated that this portion would take approximately 30 minutes. We would avoid the problem of differing reading speeds by beginning a focus group whenever one-fourth of those in attendance completed the written portion. This way we would have four focus groups at each meeting. There was no consideration given to the possibility some of those attending might be illiterate.

The questionnaire was tested at a meeting with eight individuals which was held close to the client's headquarters in an area with a very low illiteracy rate. The results of this test were excellent and only minor changes were needed in the questionnaire.

Before going into the field with the study we discussed the option of reading the questionnaire aloud. We decided it would increase the time required to complete the questionnaire by five to ten minutes and that it would be too difficult to keep many of the 40 people from going ahead on their own. It was determined to stay with the method used for the test. The first two meetings went well. They were held in areas where illiteracy rates were low. The client and I were feeling confident about the project.

At the next meeting I noticed a few of the attendees going randomly from page to page. They apparently were studying the questions but did not appear to be completing the blanks. The questionnaire followed a natural sequence and there was no reason for this type of behavior. One attendee asked if he could take the questionnaire home and return it to us by mail. He apparently felt he could get help from his spouse or friends.

As the individuals I had noted turned in their questionnaires, I put them into a separate pile. After the group sessions these were reviewed. It became obvious we had responses from a group of people who had reading skills which were minimal or non-existent.

We did not want to change the testing procedure which had already been used through the first part of the study. It was decided to determine the severity of the problem by closer scrutiny of attendees at future meetings. Those who appeared to be having troubles with the questionnaire would be noted and their papers would be put into a separate group for review. In this way we would be able to obtain an estimate of the illiteracy problem within the study group.

After the 12 meetings, a review of the separated questionnaires indicated that almost 10 percent of our attendees were unable to read basic English. It was an important discovery which the client was able to take advantage of. A special packet using visuals along with an audio cassette tape was developed as the communication instrument to reach those with limited reading skills.

We were fortunate the problem was detected early in the study. It eliminated the confusion which might have arisen regarding incomplete questionnaires. It also made me keenly aware of the need to take literacy levels into account when planning future projects.