Can you imagine not being able to read or write? I get panicky faced with the prospect of the 10-minute wait for a doctor’s appointment with no reading material to while the time away. Leaflets advertising devices and medications I don’t need, but whose advantages am I now fully up to speed on; old shopping lists I’ve found in the depths of my handbag, usually featuring items I’ve forgotten to buy; the fine print on the backs of old prescriptions outlining exactly who is exempt from payment (never me) – I’ve spent quality time with them all when I’ve left my paperback at home.
I am also conversant with current lifesaving techniques, should any of my work colleagues have a stroke, heart attack or emergency caused by poor handling of electrical equipment, because I’ve read and re-read the instructions on the kitchen wall numerous times whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. Literacy refers to the ability to read for knowledge and enjoyment, write coherently, and understand and interpret the written word. I was fortunate in that I was taught to read pretty early. My mother was a schoolteacher and she began the process before I was four years old. Even so, she later told me how frustrated she became when I stubbornly refused to make the transition from C-A-T to CAT. She thought I’d be stuck forever sounding out each word separately, but luckily for me she persevered.
I feel desperately sorry for those who never got that support, in school or at home. Education depends on literacy and a lack of reading skills hinders development and prevents adults reaching their full potential. How many things in everyday life we take for granted when we can read – instruction manuals, bus destinations, train timetables; learning to drive, the television electronic programme guide, texting, using the internet – the list is long. Without reading there can be little sense of a shared cultural heritage; no shared social history except what is seen or heard. Sure it’s there on television and in films, but how much poorer the viewer is for not being able to read the sign in the bombed-out shop window during the war film, which states, ‘we are more open then usual’. They will never get the joke.
I have a friend who works in an adult male prison. Many of the inmates can’t read and this must surely be one of the reasons why so many men commit petty crimes time after time. Their exclusion from society at this most fundamental level must have an effect on how they live their lives. It’s quite astonishing that so many people slip through the net when they’re at school, leaving education without even a fundamental grasp of letters and sounds and how they relate to each other. My friend is on the lookout for suitable reading matter to use in her literacy classes. Prisoners are no different from other men in wanting to read something relevant to themselves and their lives, but appropriate material is hard to find. They want stories and articles with adult themes, written at a basic level. I’ve read a few of these stories – it’s difficult to convey a complicated, mature theme using only words that most eight year olds would understand, but that’s my next challenge.