Reading Between The Lines

Posted at 14:41pm on 15th August 2008
Related topics:
Books & Reading

The Isolation Of Being Unable To Read


Did anybody watch the UK’s Channel 4’s Can’t Read, Can’t Write series? It focused on people from different backgrounds and ages: the young mother who was unable to help with her children’s homework, the labourer who longed to improve his job prospects, the middle-aged woman whose intellect and culture relied solely on audio tapes, and the grandmother whose own mother had spent a lifetime denouncing her as a failure. As the title suggests, what each had in common was an inability to read or write.

One of the group spent his working life erecting signs – No Parking, and the like – for the local council. Word-blind, he had to rely on the pattern of the words, or the pictures, to tell him which was the top of the sign and which the bottom. The grandmother, sent off with a shopping list to the local supermarket by her daughter, suffered a panic attack and ran home sobbing – with an empty basket.


Award-winning teacher Phil Beadle spent six months trying to rectify the failings of ten years of schooling for these people. Throwing out the adult literacy scheme as unusable because it required an existing ability to read, Phil used whatever innovative means he could devise to teach his disparate group. For some that meant physically laying out tangible bits and pieces of classroom equipment to make letters. For others, curving their hands and fingers into shapes was sufficient.

I cried, unashamedly, as we watched, week by week. So did my husband, once a teacher, and therefore part of the system which, we were told, had failed these people. To say it was moving TV would be to demean the achievements of Phil Beadle and his class of nine. The isolation resulting from being unable to read was self-evident in the pain etched in the faces of his pupils.


Conversely, the joy of word recognition, sentence structure, and comprehension was clear to see, once it came. Watching the grandmother, stumbling over the text of The Very Hungry Caterpillar was enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes. It certainly did to mine. For the first time in her life this woman knew the thrill and satisfaction of being able to read to her grandchildren.

In other respects, the results were mixed. One member of the class, a dyslexia, made only a tiny leap of progress. For the woman who had learned chunks of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart from the audio tapes she’d acquired over the years, the ability to read brought great heartache and anger. She grieved for the education she’d lost and, unable to cope, walked out of the class. But only to rediscover the determination that had gripped her throughout her learning-to-read journey. She went on, eventually, to enrol in further education to take the GCSE’s and A levels previously denied her. Overall, there was no doubt that lives were changed; and changed for the better.


Coincidentally, we now hear that, despite millions of pounds spent on promoting books to UK teenagers, one in four fail to reach the standards required in reading. This, in turn, means that they fail to acquire passes in other subjects which require them to read.

So what does this mean for the under-achievers? And for the rest of us? And who, if anyone, is to blame?

From the evidence seen in the Channel 4 programme, it’s not hard to realise that there are going to be future generations of low-grade labourers, frustrated intellectuals, and humiliated grandmothers. And another sub-culture of illiterates who will be unable to hold down any sort of job, or to be upwardly mobile if they do secure work. For the vast majority, it will mean exclusion from a whole world of learning, of information, of make-believe. And for all of them it will leave them in a darkened world of secrecy and shame.

For those of us who are fortunate enough or sufficiently prudent not to fall into these categories, it will mean a lifetime of paying taxes to provide benefits for those for whom our taxes failed to provide an education. For authors and publishers, it will mean shrinking markets and falling revenues. And for society, generally, it will mean an impoverishment of spirit. Because if there is one thing that reading does for society, it is to broaden the mind.


Inevitably, educationalists and politicians are awarded the blame. But so, too, are parents. A quick look at history reveals that at the turn of the last century, illiteracy spelt poverty. Philanthropists were falling over themselves to educate the masses, and the masses, it has to be said, were intent upon bettering themselves. A Welfare State with its unmerited benefits is not conducive to pulling oneself up by one’s boot laces. Looking back to the days before television also reveals an era of parents reading bedtime stories to their children, and a time when communication equated to handwritten letters, and holiday postcards and thank-you letters were the norm.

So where does this leave us and what, if any, are the solutions. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any answers. Except to say that praps well all b reding th v hngry ctpiller in txt in yrs to cme.


Don’t forget, those of you who are would-be-authors, tomorrow we’ll be beginning a series on The How-to of Writing. Part One will be about how to get ideas together for a plot. See you then!

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller, Mel is also an experienced Speakerand has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows.Her latest novel ‘A Painful Post Mortem’ may be purchased online here at:booklocker (for sales outside UK); or at amazon

The proceeds of all book sales is for charity.

To book her as a Speaker, contact her at:

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