Monday, July 21, 2008

Can't read, can't write

The first episode of the TV series Can't Read, Can't Write was aired on the BBC tonight. It should be compulsory viewing for every teacher.

My brain is fizzing.

The utter inadequacy of the adult literacy programme is astonishing... and scandalous! Just the way that prospective learners have to enrol on the programme is in itself a barrier (which I learned from a radio interview with Phil Beadle earlier this week, rather than from the TV series).

I think what struck me most and left me gasping with disbelief was the reaction of a woman who heads up one of these programmes when Phil Beadle (what an apt name) found fault with the system and the materials. She didn't like his maverick resistance to and criticism of the curriculum. She said repeatedly that her teachers followed the government curriculum which bore results. Her idea of results? The students passed the exam at the end, "because that's what it's all about, isn't it?"

No, it flipping isn't. Who puts people like this in charge of learning programmes?

It's all about releasing these people from the prison of adult illiteracy in a world which does not cater to them. It's about empowering them.

How do you catch a bus if you can't read a timetable? How do you open a bank account if you can't fill in a form? How do you prepare even a heat-and-eat meal if you can't read the instructions? How do you learn to drive if you can't read the roadsigns and master the highway code?

Phil was dismayed and discouraged every time he looked at the curriculum and spoke to its proponents. But, when he spoke to the learners, he was ignited and the light went on in his eyes. My kind of teacher. A true wild-eyed zealot.

Some of the people had become ingenious at hiding their disability (because disability it is). One woman in particular seemed incapable of attaching sounds to written letters. She was a bright, cultured woman who wanted to read Hemingway.

She tried to run her fingers over the letters and could only make sense of them if she could feel their shapes. Not much help with current printing technologies. You could tell her that this was the letter T, and she would repeat that. She could tell you all sorts of words that contained that sound. She could recite Shakespeare sonnets. But show her the T again and she had no idea what it was. There just seemed to be a wire in her brain that wasn't connected the same way as everyone else's was. I found myself shouting at the TV, "Teach her braille!" It didn't matter that she wasn't blind - she might as well have been for all the sense she could make of the squiggles on the page.

Phil didn't teach her braille, and he did have her reading her first words (albeit slowly) within 3 weeks. I still think braille would have been a good starting point for her, but the rest of the series will reveal whether or not I am right.

If there is any way you can get your hands on this series, please, please watch it. It will stir you, infuriate you, inspire you. It will remind you how 'unflat' this world really is - even in our educated societies.


Anonymous said...

I am amazed to read this. Roughly the same issue has been addressed in that movie. The faliure of our education system. Do you know here in India there is so much stress on teaching the kids English. Teachers create such an atmosphere that a kid who is lagging behind feels insecure. You are right in your stand in every learning process there should be a clarity in what will be the end goal and a playful learning process molded to achieve that. Good to know that the little girl is responding to your hand waves and smiles. So many people have faith in your belief just keep going.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Karyn!

Y'know, teachers can be very strong-minded. Alexander Graham Bell was (as well as being a teacher of the deaf). His strong will (that which gave him the belief that the telephone WAS a device people might find useful) made him the entrepreneur that he was - and he needed to be.

But barriers are everywhere when it comes to understanding meaning from text. I agree with you over the Braille bit. But, hey, there are many things that people can't learn - I'd love to speak another language, but try as I might I simply do not have it. I might as well aspire to be a virtuoso violinist as speak French fluently.

But you also mentioned hiding disabilities. This is a talent in itself - believe me. And what would be more useful - training in reading for a person who'll never learn to read, or training in hiding that disability? For some who can do the latter very well, it seems that not being able to read in no real barrier. They can be very successful at other things (things that other people can't do well, yet they can read).

Ka kite

Anonymous said...

@blogger You're right, Ken in that many illiterate people have skills that literate people don't. But our western world does not cater to people who can't read. One of the ladies on this programme couldn't even read her own name. We're not talking about people who can't read well, here. We're talking about people who can't read AT ALL.

Think about it like this - how do you get around? You can't drive, because you can't get a licence. You can't read a map. You can't read a bus timetable. You can't identify the right bus. You can't read a train timetable.

Bank accounts. Contracts. Menus. Receipts. ATMs. Product names on supermarket shelves. Street names. Absolutely everything requires an ability to be at least functionally literate.