The aim of this prospective observational study was to estimate the proportion of otolaryngology patients with poor reading skills, as a guide to information provision. The subjects were a consecutive series of 50 adult outpatients attending a general otolaryngology clinic at the Victoria Infirmary, Glasgow, and whose first language was English. Reading skills were estimated using the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine. For comparison, the SMOG readability formula was used to estimate the reading skills required to understand the Department’s 35 information leaflets, the standard elective admission notification letter and the surgical consent form. Fourteen (28 per cent) patients were found to have poor reading skills (8th grade or less). The surgical consent form required 11th grade reading ability, as did the standard admission letter, and the leaflets required 9th to 15th grade (graduate) reading ability (median 11th grade). Many patients could be expected to have difficulty understanding these written materials. Information must be written in plain English to be suitable for a wide range of patients, including those with poor reading skills.