When I was handed over at the tender age of four years old to Mrs Miller, the infant class teacher, I could already read to a basic level. With two older sisters, I was lucky enough to know my letters, and had already enjoyed a number of fairy tales and other illustrated children’s books.
In those days the aim of early education was to give you a solid grounding in the Three R’s which included Reading, Riting and Rithmatic. Obviously spelling was not part of the offering! I would say that based on my memories of the time, we spent the next two years, reaching the required standard in those three subjects, before moving onto basic geography, history and biology.
I also seem to remember, that there were not many children who by the end of primary school, had not reached a reasonable level across most subjects; enabling them to move onto secondary education. Nearly sixty years later, I find myself wondering at the numbers quoted for illiteracy in the UK and US indicating that education has not progressed as far as it should.
The Literacy Trust states that one person in six in the UK is living with poor literacy. That is a staggering 10 million people who are challenged in their daily lives to communicate. If a person cannot read or write, then it is not only the written words that are difficult to come by. Verbally too there is a much narrower vocabulary available to work with. http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/about
In an article in the Huffington Post in 2014 it was quoted that 14% of the nearly 324million US population, are not able to read or write. That is 45 million people. The article also claims that 19% of those leaving high school are unable to read! The headline news is that literacy rates have not changed in the US for ten years. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/06/illiteracy-rate_n_3880355.html
On a global scale the figures are even more daunting for reasons that I will look at shortly.
‘New literacy data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) indicate there are 758 million adults, 15 years and older, who still cannot read or write a simple sentence. Roughly two-thirds of them are female’
This statement does have encouraging news regarding the literacy rate for 15 to 24 years old, which is at 91% in many countries, due to improved teaching methods and compulsory education. However, in certain countries such as sub- Saharan Africa is just 65%.
For 24 – 65 years old the figures are not so optimistic, with below 30% literacy rate in countries such as Afghanistan. http://www.uis.unesco.org/literacy/Pages/literacy-data-release-2016.aspx
So what do these numbers mean in relation to surviving in a modern world?
As always when you talk about overwhelming figures, it is difficult to put the real impact for an individual person into perspective.
Let’s start with our own immediate environment. One way to demonstrate the disadvantage that it places someone who cannot read or write at, is to imagine you have just arrived in a foreign country; you do not know how to speak or read the language, nor do you understand the currency.
歡迎愛爾蘭 – 請開車路的左側，並按照指示前往都柏林市中心。有一個收費站，並請有確切的五錢歐元承壓。這是你佩戴安全帶的法律，如果你被發現有十幾年的強制性監禁。
My apologies to native Chinese speakers and hope fervently that I have not offended anyone! But it does serve to demonstrate how miscommunication with literacy is very easy.
What I intended to say was!
Welcome to Ireland – please drive on the left hand side of the road and follow the directions to Dublin City Centre. There is a toll and please have five euro in exact money. It is the law that you wear a seat belt and if you are caught there is a mandatory prison sentence of ten years. (not true of course but if you cannot read and understand; it is this sort of consequence that is likely).
Obviously a little literary licence since the toll is actually cheaper than that!
Now take that a little bit further. You might have listened to a language course before you arrived on this excursion, and no doubt have memorised a few stock phrases. You might have a vocabulary of 100 – 150 words and be able ask directions, say please and thank you.
But I know from experience of living in three different countries, where I had to learn the language, that those responding, tend to talk very fast and use 900 more words than you have in your limited vocabulary!
Put yourself in this situation and imagine how you would feel. Frightened, frustrated, angry perhaps because people do not understand you when you are trying desperately to communicate with them.
You might find this article interesting from Reading Wise which talks about the link between illiteracy and crime.
Studies show a positive correlation between illiteracy / functional illiteracy and crime: half of UK prisoners have a reading age of an 11 year old or below, a figure that rises to 80% in the case of writing. Despite the Prison Service Order 4205, which makes statuary provision for learning and accreditation opportunity in the prison system, over 50% of prisoners do not possess the necessary skills for 96% of today’s jobs.
While one in two prisoners cites employment planning as being the most important aspect of their sentence plan, a measured two thirds leave prison without immediate prospect of paid employment. Within two years, two thirds of adult prisoners will have reoffended.
Also: In a recent survey carried out in 24 countries last October the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ‘found that England and Northern Ireland was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy’, surmising that ‘this low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.’ Indeed, it has been estimated that over the course of an individual’s lifetime, the taxpayer can end up spending up to £64,000 supporting someone with poor literacy skills.
Read the whole article here. http://readingwise.com/blog/impact/the-cost-of-illiteracy
How does this cause problems in society?
There is no way that I am going to label anyone who cannot read or write a criminal as most would rather lead a life under the radar. However, going back to how you might feel if you suddenly found yourself faced with only Chinese as a form of written or verbal communication. Just how frustrated and angry are you going to get?
How embarrassed are you going to feel that you cannot understand what is written in front of you and what is being said? Are you going to shout a little louder perhaps or get your own way by another means? Certainly that is an option taken by a small percentage of those who find themselves in that situation.
The majority however will do the opposite and will hide their lack of ability. They will develop work arounds, stick to their immediate environment, learn enough words and phrases to be able to shop and handle money. Adults with children will come to rely on them heavily when it comes to communication, and a very large majority will never ask for help.
In Britain today we have a thriving multicultural society which brings huge benefits as we live side by side. But it also has an impact on overall literacy levels.
Our education system has had to adapt and we have gone from teaching reading, writing and arithmetic to native English speakers, to first teaching English to over a million children who speak a different language at home. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Daily Telegraph.
English is no longer the first language for the majority of pupils in more than one in nine schools, new figures have revealed. Last year the majority of children in 1,755 primary and secondary schools spoke another language at home following a sharp increase in the number of pupils with foreign born parents.
In more than 200 schools nine in ten pupils do not speak English as their mother tongue, with children speaking as many as 14 different languages. Across England, the number of pupils who have English as their second language has risen by a fifth to almost 1.1million in the past five years.
Whatever originating country, those who arrived as first generation immigrants have had the enormous task of adapting to a new country, customs and culture. Within that first generation there are still many who have never learned English. The rules are changing that will mean that any new applicants must learn the language, but that is a huge ask, especially if you are coming from a country where you were never taught to read and write in the first place.
It is very isolating, as I know from first- hand experience, and even after learning sufficient Spanish to get by in our time in Spain, you have no idea how grateful I am to be able to carry out my everyday tasks in English. And it is not just daily tasks that are easier. It is important to remember too, that even for those who do learn enough English to enjoy society to its fullest extent, there are other social differences that can isolate individuals within certain cultures.
Even if you can understand aspects of communication such as humour, it tends to be culturally related, as are different customs and the way we conduct relationships between men and women. Throw religion into the mix and you have another level of misunderstanding in the making.
What about the future of worldwide literacy?
One of the issues that I have with some of the figures that are used in the official sites for literacy is that they do not admit that overall literacy on a worldwide basis is going to be impossible to achieve in the next century if ever. This is particularly so in countries where there is no adequate education system or where one group is excluded, such as females.
Also there are other economic and environmental factors to be taken into consideration. For many of the countries which have poor literacy rates, conflict or natural disasters such as famine and drought are ever present. The primary focus is on basic survival and there are certain countries where education will always take a back seat.
So what about Rithmatic!
Usually, even someone who cannot read and write, will understand the value of currency both in notes and coins. However, if you cannot do basic arithmetic you may not know the total amount that you have to spend. When you arrive at the store and browse the aisles you may well recognise the numbers in the pricing system but if you do not know how to add them up, you are going to struggle when you get to the checkout.
Running a household these days is expensive, but not only that, most bills these days are online. They expect you to pay by direct debit that you have to set up yourself. If you are unable to read how are you going to do that in the first place and then understand the bill and budget to pay for it?
I mentioned that many people who are living with functional illiteracy will develop work arounds. One such option is to use the corner shop and cash, so that they can use one of the pay as you go systems for phone and utility bills. But that system will be phased out over the years as we develop newer technology, and it becomes too expensive for service companies to operate on that basis.
There are many more areas that are limiting for someone who cannot read and write or do basic arithmetic and the result is important.
Going back to the heading of this chapter which was Reading, Riting and Rithmatic = Reasoning… Another R of life.
I believe that one of the main causes of strive and conflict, including terrorism is a lack of communication. East and West has always been at odds and there is nothing new in history. The crusades were a violent and bitter conflict and that injustice has been kept alive through subsequent generations. In written history but also passed on orally.
If you cannot read and do not have access to books or modern technology then you become isolated from the world. You are then at the mercy of those who can communicate and are therefore in a position of influence and power. Without any other terms of reference, you will listen and follow the views of those who have the gift of communication, even when it is promoting hatred and violence.
This is also true of many of the religions of the world. The mystique of faith was much easier to keep alive in days when nearly all congregations were illiterate. Holy books were only read by an elite few. Millions who worshipped could only base their beliefs on the sermons of their preachers. Many who made it very clear that there is only one true path; then there is Hell and Damnation if you don’t obey.
On a daily basis, the rhetoric of our leaders and the relentless media that bombard us with inflammatory speeches and images; have cultivated a fear culture. It is one thing for us who can read other view points, to listen and to then form our own pinions on the matter. But because of modern technology, our leader’s behaviour and attitudes as well as trashy and inflammatory headlines are beamed around the world.
That is the face we are presenting to people who have already been told that we are evil. They see the images and if they cannot read and write, they have no terms of reference to reason that this is not true for everyone within a culture. It just confirms all the dreadful things they have been told about us.
World peace is about as feasible as worldwide literacy and the end to poverty. We are making progress but it is going to take a global effort to get anywhere near the figures needed to reach mutual understanding and respect.
So that is the problems of illiteracy.. what are some of the solutions?
In an ideal world all of us would be able to read and write and be able to communicate. The numbers are more encouraging for the younger generation at 91% literacy in certain countries, but it is going to take more than a few more generations before that figure is matched globally, and in the 24-65 and older age brackets.
Like any situation where numbers are in the millions it is overwhelming. It is also very easy to feel that it is impossible to make a difference. However, I believe very firmly in the ability we all have to make a difference to one person, and for that to create a ripple effect that changes the lives of thousands.
You may also be wondering why I am including this as one of the factors in surviving in the modern world since clearly you can already read!
You have been gifted with the ability to read and many of you are also writers. Some of you are parents and grandparents and that is a great place to start. With your own children and grandchildren; encouraging a love of stories and books at a very early age. By the time they go to school, they should be excited about the prospect and the schools should be just as creative and exceptional to tap into that potential.
I was told by a teacher of an infant class once, that they preferred it if parents did not try to teach their children to read, as it was usually the wrong method. I am afraid that I disagree, as the earlier a child begins to use their imagination and learns the wonders of books the better. A child’s brain is like a sponge and it seems to me a complete waste to let a child get to four or five before tapping into that potential.
Looking at the figures of young people leaving school, without the basic skills such as reading and writing; it would seem that getting them started as early as possible would be a great idea.
What about outside of our families?
If we want to create a safer world for our children and grandchildren in the future, and bring to an end this lack of reasoning in our communications with others, then we need to reach out and ensure that we, who have the gift of reading and writing pass that on.
There are a number of volunteer programmes worldwide that are literacy based and I am going to give you some of their links.
Time is precious and I am only too aware of that. But even if it is for one afternoon a week, if you read stories to children, work with adults with literacy difficulties, or help raise money to increase literacy; you will be doing a wonderful thing.
Even if only one person learns to read and write because of your efforts you will have made a difference…. Especially if they then go on to encourage others.
Will this cure world hunger and poverty, or achieve global literacy and world peace. I am afraid not. However, over time, it may well gift millions with the ability to read, write and reason and change their attitude towards their fellow man for the better.
If you would like to volunteer to help children and adults with literacy then here are some country specific links. I suggest that you search for organisations within your own countries who are usually very keen to find volunteers.
USA – https://proliteracy.org/
©sallycronin The R’s of Life.
Thank you for reading and of course your feedback is very welcome.