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Unravelling literacy myths

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Paula Lucie-Smith
Alta CEO & Founder


There are two widely-held myths about literacy. 


The first myth is that reading is easy, so if you can’t read you must be stupid. Most of us don’t remember learning to read, we just remember reading so we think it is natural and automatic—easy.


Reading is actually very complex. In fact, researchers do not know how the brain actually reads. Moreover, reading is not a natural skill, not something that we pick up just by hearing others read. Learning to read, for example, is different from learning to talk. The young child looks and listens to others talking and begins to talk herself. Not so with reading. Reading and writing do not develop naturally—they must be taught, must be learnt. 


Reading is like any skill, some of us have natural talent, some struggle to learn and most fall at the various points between these two poles of ease and difficulty. 


Let’s compare learning to read with learning to play an instrument. Some can play by ear and make music after a few lessons, but others need instruction for years to play the same way. It is the same with reading and writing. Some have an aptitude for reading and pick it up easily. Others don’t. 


So, mastering reading and writing depends on the wiring of your brain and having the opportunity to learn. 


Moreover aptitude for literacy does not determine your ability, especially your ability to think and to succeed. Some very successful dyslexics who struggled with written words are actors Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg and our own multi-talented Geoffrey Holder; creators of business empires Walt Disney, Charles Schwab and Robert Bermudez. 


So, reading is not easy and poor literacy cannot be equated with poor thinking skills or potential to succeed. 


The second myth is that we are, or even once were, a literate nation. In the mid-1990s, there were two national literacy surveys of those aged 15 and over—the first by Alta, followed by UWI. These showed that about one in four people could not perform everyday reading and writing tasks like reading simple signs or filling out basic forms, and only 45 per cent could read and understand a simple newspaper article. 


For these persons who do not read, or do not read well, what does it mean? 


We live in an age of information and that information is written. A phone call has become a text; your social life is on Facebook; to access almost everything, from jobs to giveaways, you fill out a form. 


How would you feel surrounded by written words that give others a message but not you? Over the years many students have talked about being on the outside, feeling excluded. As one student wrote: “There is no place for me in the heart of society.” Note her choice of the word ‘heart’—tells you she feels rejected, unloved by the world around her. 


Not only are poor readers left out, but they feel they have to hide because those who read think reading is easy. They live in fear of being found out, under stress hiding that they can't read. My student Yvonne speaks of “getting a braveness” when she came to Alta, able to be open literacy for the first time in her 40 years. 


Their world is a small one because they avoid anything they haven’t done before. I remember the student from Chaguanas who had never come to POS.


Then there is the impact on the children, who often struggle at school, just as their parents did since literacy is a product of home and school, not just school. Indeed a strong motivator for coming to Alta is to ensure that your children have a better life—as the students put it, “I don’t want my children to have to suffer like me.” 


Something that I have noticed is how low literacy affects relationships with those around you. One of my students, Fitzroy spoke of how coming to Alta changed his relationship with his young son. Fitzroy started as a beginner student; that is, he did recognise even all the letters of the alphabet and virtually no words. He said when his son came to ask him for help with school work, because he couldn’t help but he didn’t want his son to know this, Fitzroy would brush him off rudely—“You can’t see I busy. Stop bothering me.” From his first year at Alta, Fitzroy began to share what he was learning at Alta—the sight word and phonics cards—and asking his son to share what he had learned at school. 


A factor of increasing importance is that the non-literate have fewer legitimate options to earn a living. Most jobs require three CXC passes. There are limited legit options, but apparently a wide range of fairly well-organised illegitimate ones often starting quite innocuously: “drop dis here for mih,” “look out and see when Babylon comin.’”


Fr Clyde Harvey wrote in an article in December 2010, “Those of us who have worked with youth at risk have been struck by the high percentage of them who have very poor reading skills. Many of our teenage boys are reading at levels half their age. Many of our gang leaders have reading disabilities which were not recognised at school, left them at the back of the class and then saw them compensating through their other natural abilities of leadership.” 


What can we do?


Be alert to the signs of low literacy: 


Avoiding print: not reading menu (I will have what you are having), excuses—‘forgot glasses’, ‘too busy’ 


Missing out on opportunities or not participating in anything new: Alta students have said that they turned down a promotion or quit a job when there is a change of procedure. 


Displaying badges of literacy, eg carrying a newspaper, pen in pocket—but never using these. 


Respond appropriately—do not be surprised, dismayed or even saddened when someone says they can’t read. Avoid saying “How come you can’t read?” This implies something is wrong with them, which they are often already thinking. 
Someone saying they don’t read well should be like saying you don’t sing well. There is no stigma and if you want to improve, it’s ok to get lessons whatever your age. 
We need to understand the myths and change our attitudes. We the literate are responsible for the shame each non-reader has to overcome to walk into an Alta class. 


Suggest Alta in the same tone as you would computer classes—literacy is a skill like any other. 
Now is the time to encourage the adults around us to come to Alta as we register new students only once a year—on the first Tuesday and Wednesday of September, the start of the new academic year. 
Registration is easy—just go to your nearest public library on September 3 or 4 and Alta tutors will let you know the class options in the area and sign you up. 
Last year was Alta’s 20th anniversary and we conducted an impact survey. 100 per cent of the random sample of past and present Alta students said they would recommend Alta and more than half said Alta helped them to earn higher salaries. 


Many added an impact that we hadn’t thought to ask them—they said they are much happier now. 
Lovena Gookool, who started in Alta beginner, graduated from Level 3 and went on to get her school leaving certificate wrote: 
I am not ashamed to go public. When my three children were growing up I couldn’t read fluently to them. Now I can read to my grandchildren. I couldn’t put notes in my children’s lunch kits. 
Now I write five notes on the weekends for my grandchildren, one note a day for their lunch kits. 


There is no need to ask anyone to help me fill out forms. I can do it on my own now. I always wondered how people knew how to do these things. 
Learning to read opened up a whole new world for me. 
This is what Alta is about—taking away the walls that box non-readers into the very small world of the familiar; moving from dependent to independent; transforming lives not just for this generation, but for the next.



Play your part to build literacy. If you have time, volunteer to be a Reading Circle guide or to assist Alta students on the computer. If your time is already booked, sponsor an Alta student for the year (TT$500). Call 624-Alta (2582), 664-2582, 653-4656 or email [email protected]


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