Tuesday, 8 September 2009

International Literacy Day

Since I have spent part of my working life trying to help adults improve their reading and writing skills, I could not let this day pass without mention.

Often the reason for difficulties in this area is dyslexia, which has only been fully recognised in Britain in recent years. Dyslexia is now something that can be overcome and people can be helped to do so. Sometimes there are other learning difficulties to overcome. Sometimes it is just a question of inherited expectations or lack of encouragement in the traditional years of education. Personality disorders can interfere with learning, and these seem to be becoming more and more prevalent.

Whatever the reason, a lack of literacy skills severely affects quality of life. Where they are able to get help and overcome their difficulties, they are amazed by the doors that open to them and the choices they are able to make. When I was teaching, this was wonderfully demonstrated by Sue Torr, a woman who was touring the country with a short drama based on her life before and after she was able to read.

Everyone who can’t read or write develops coping mechanisms. This woman had successfully hidden her problem from her family and friends, even from her husband, for years. It was only when she was 38 and working as a achool dinner lady that she confided in a teacher, and came to realise that she really could do something about it. She took adult classes and, in time, managed to read and write.

It was such an epiphany for her that she knew she had to spread the word, and she collaborated with a drama group to write and produce her play and take it around the country. Sue has also written a book about her experiences and you can find the details here. Her achievements have been recognised with the award of MBE presented to her by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Those of us whose education provided us with the ability to read and write often find it hard to understand what life would be like without this capacity, or how hard it can be for some people to learn. I once took on a government funded project to raise awareness among people whose work put them in touch with less fortunate adults who had missed out on literacy.

I soon realised that one of the most illuminating parts of my course was when I gave out a handout of mirror writing and asked them to read it. Most managed it slowly and with great difficulty; some found it just too hard to do. And they realised just how hard it would be to learn to read from scratch or close to it, and how much determination it would take to stick to it.

To read this post, you must be literate. And just think of the number of ways you need to use your literacy skills in your everyday life. It’s only in recent years that a kind of international language of symbols for signs to warn of hazards has been agreed. How do you know which bus to catch, and when and where? How do you know what platform your train will go from? How do you apply for a job? If you get one as a cleaner, what products are right for what purpose and safe to use without protective clothing? How do you find a plumber when you need one? These questions could go on and on.

We should all be thanking our lucky stars that at some time in our lives, we learned how to read.

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