Eradication of illiteracy should not be beyond our grasp
2019-04-01 16:04:35 -

By Aodhán Ó Ríordáin


For a country that is famed for being ‘the land of saints and scholars’, it may surprise many that one in six Irish adults are functionally illiterate.


Functional illiteracy means someone can have difficulty reading material such as an application form, a medicine bottle or an instruction manual. The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) put the figure at 17.9 per cent of our adult population. This isn’t just an educational issue, it as a matter of equality and access. It also should be a national cause.


In the late 1990s, Tommy MacKay, an educational psychologist based in Glasgow, began proposing what he termed an “impossible vision”. He advocated for the “complete eradication of illiteracy” in this impoverished council district, starting with children. And he wanted it to be achieved within 10 years.


In 1997, just five percent of children in the first year of primary school in West Dunbartonshire had ‘very high’ scores on word reading. In 2007 that figure had risen to 45 per cent. In 1997 the number of six-year-olds in the area with ‘very poor’ reading ability was 11 per cent. In 2007 that figure had fallen to just one per cent.


Before delving into the strategies that produced such impressive results, it is the ambition of the language that is most striking. The “total eradication of illiteracy” is a bold statement of intent. It captures the importance of the issue, much more than a bland attempt to ‘tackle educational disadvantage’ ever could. We cannot address the literacy deficit in Ireland if we don’t first acknowledge the problem.


While part of this debate is relevant to the area of special needs education and non-English speakers, the central focus of our effort must be about poverty, disadvantage and inequality. Dr Noel Browne felt that while sickness and disease were inevitable, no one should be sick because they are poor. Similarly, in the modern era we should acknowledge that some will always have reading problems, but no one should have reading problems because they are poor.


Some of the research makes for uncomfortable reading. The Hart and Risley Report of 1995 showed that a disadvantaged three-year-old has only one-third the vocabulary of a more advantaged peer. The Department of Education in Ireland estimates that one-third of children leaving designated disadvantaged primary schools are reading at an inferior level to the mainstream.


The anecdotal evidence can be dispiriting. Young offenders who sign their charge sheets with an ‘x’. Teachers who talk of children in their classes who have not one single book at home. Older people who resort to blaming their inability to read menus because they ‘can’t find their glasses’. And inevitably those who fall out of education fall into the arms of those who will lead them in more destructive ways.


The inability to read affects everything about an individual’s life — from their ability to access important information to suffering from low self-esteem and, most brutal of all, that the greatest works of literature, poetry and prose are alien to them. The very description of vivid human emotion is closed to them. This is floor of common decency that we shouldn’t allow any citizen to fall beneath.


The argument that schools hold all of the responsibility for Irish literacy levels doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Schools are obviously part of the solution, but family and community-based literacy models work best.


Middle-class families will have greater access to books in the home, a tradition of access to education at different levels and most likely a library with accessible opening hours. Not every community is the same. In fact it is only since 2006 that every library in Dublin City is open on a Saturday. Surely a seven-day opening for Irish libraries is something to which we can aspire without too much debate?


There is hope, as the Glasgow experiment has shown, but there are examples closer to home also. The Preparing for Life programme based in Darndale, north Dublin, which focuses on parenting from early pregnancy to school-going age, places great emphasis on positive reinforcement, diet, oral language and family literacy.


When the progress was independently assessed by a team of academics in UCD, children were also shown to have higher cognitive development, were less likely to be overweight, and fewer had behavioural problems (two per cent compared with 17 per cent in the wider group).


Preparing for Life is one of 13 Area-Based Childhood (ABC) initiatives that were rolled out across the State in 2013. The answer lies in political ambition that can be matched with resources and appreciating that the dynamics in each community may be very different. Last week two separate Plain Language Bills were published to help encourage official Ireland to bring people with reading challenges in from the cold. If we are to make the real change, the ambition of our language and our intent has to be bolder.


Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour Party Senator.

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