Have you ever thought what it would be like if you were unable to read or understand a word of this blog? Doubtless you would be feeling the same shame and isolation as the people I wrote about in my post: Reading Between the Lines last month. Tears were aplenty as they shared their stories in the TV series Can't Read; Can't Write - and they weren't solely those of the participants! There we learned that in Britain, alone, over five million adults have a reading age of 12 or less, or are unable to read at all. UNESCO reports one in five adults unable to read, two thirds of them women, and 72 million children out of school, with many more attending only irregularly. Ironic then, to be told by the Dag Hammarskjold Library (the UN website) that "close to four billion literate people in the world" is cause for celebration.
ILLITERACY IN AMERICA
In the USA, The Illiterate Digest claims that 23 million Americans are illiterate (though MeriNews has that number as a mere seven million). A dedicated website lists the percentages of illiterates in each town, whilst attributing the following quote to George W Bush: "One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures."
EDUCATION A HUMAN RIGHT
Monday 8th September was designated International Literacy Day by the United Nations General Assembly. In their Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right of every individual to education is recognized as "inalienable". With more than a billion adults worldwide unable to read or even write their name, according to Book Aid International, all attempts to achieve this Right must be seen as both a worthy cause, and a daunting task.
The UK based National Literacy Trust has a number of events in its calendar which anyone can sign up for. USATODAY points to the classic Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It, written half-century ago by Rudolf Flesch, and cites the answer to the illiteracy crisis as being "within". It goes on to say: "The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch provides an equally persuasive analysis of the educational weakness of the USA." And: "Anybody who doubts Hirsch's devastating critique should look at the recently released report of the National Council on Teacher Quality, "What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading - and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning.'"
PHONICS READING SCHEME
This was the feeling of award-winning teacher Phil Beadle in the UK Channel 4 series mentioned above. Throwing out the national curriculum for adult literacy as unworkable because it required people to be able to read (work that one out) and was designed for immigrants, he found innovative and diverse ways of teaching his class. Different people need different methods of learning, he said. Which makes you wonder why the UK government is refusing to fund synthetic phonics as a means of improving the situation. If it works, say I, then bring it on.
Synthetic phonics has been proved, in some schools, to have a near miraculous effect on the majority of children who have previously failed to learn to read. The system is simple. Children learn the basic sounds of language as it is spoken. These sounds are made up of combinations of letters; thus igh becomes the i sound as in slight or fight, rather than the sounds produced by each individual letter i g h.
Given that reading opens up the world in a way that nothing else can, and that without it the whole basis of learning is denied children who might otherwise be bright, it is a scandal that we should question any proven method. What is the point of testing children throughout their schooling to see if they have attained the required level in all subjects, if we don't ensure that they have the most basic means of learning them?
EASY COME, EASY GO
But is it that simple? Education, it has been said, is wasted on the young. And herein lies the rub. In the days when the only means of clambering out of the gutter of poverty was through learning (and that still applies to many parts of the world today), the very scarcity and elitist nature of education was what made it so attractive. Today, in the Western world, at least, its commonplace nature, combined with easy money in the form of benefits, and the great wealth achievable by celebrity status, makes it a less valued option. Perhaps, one might almost say, despised. Until, that is, you've acquired the wisdom of hindsight and maturity and are faced with the shame of not being able to read your gas bill. Or the label on your medication! Or worse - you're technical savvy enough to operate your mobile phone, but 2 stoopid 2 spl th werds 2 txt ur frend!