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Why a million UK adults cannot read this headline


Why a million UK adults cannot read this headline

More than a million adult Britons have a standard of literacy no better than that of a seven-year-old. For them, reading road signs, writing their names or understanding instructions on pill bottles is a hardship. Anuskha Asthana reports on how beating illiteracy can cut poverty and restore dignity

Anuskha Asthana
The Observer,
Sunday March 2, 2008

By the time he was 32 and had hung up his boots, Scott Quinnell had played rugby union for Llanelli 146 times, captained Wales, gained 52 caps and scored 11 international tries. He had even been chosen to play for the British Lions in Australia in 2001.

Yet on the day that he decided to retire, Quinnell - an undisputed Welsh hero - still only had the reading age of a seven-year-old. His writing and spelling were also poor, meaning that his wife had to fill in cheques for him. On more than one occasion fans threw autographs back in anger. When the sports star decided to tackle the first book in the Harry Potter series, in his late twenties, it took him two months to complete the 223 pages.

This week Quinnell will become one of the leading figures of a major campaign aimed at helping the millions of adults in Britain who are barely literate to read for pleasure. He will tell his story in a book that he wrote himself after being treated for severe dyslexia. It will be one of 10 launched on Thursday, World Book Day, as part of the Quick Reads campaign - which will also feature stories from chef Gordon Ramsay and Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson.

The campaign comes as new research reveals that teaching the country's illiterate parents to read will transform the futures of millions of children. A study by the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC), to be published this month, found that taking a parent who cannot read and training them to the level of an average 11-year-old resulted in the test results of their children aged six to 16 doubling

It was Quinnell's two children, Lucy, 11, and Steele, nine, who were also dyslexic, that made him want to change his life. 'I did not want them to go through the same experiences as me, going to their bedroom at night and crying because they were different to everyone else,' he said. 'I struggled at school - it was a frustrating time. If you are called lazy and stupid often enough you start to believe it. I was lucky I had sport. I found out I was dyslexic when I was 21, but I did not do anything. I just kept playing.'

A conversation with fellow rugby player Kenny Logan changed his life. 'I told him that I struggled to read and write and he said he did, too,' said Quinnell. 'He told me about the Dore Programme [to treat dyslexia] and I wanted to do it for my children.' Quinnell completed the programme and can now read, write and spell.

Not so for millions of others. There are 1.1 million adults in England with a reading age lower than that of a typical seven-year-old. For them, reading road signs, taking in the instructions on a medicine bottle or simply writing their name is a hardship. Many try to hide their lack of ability, even from partners or children, often claiming to have forgotten non-existent glasses. When those whose literacy is so poor they could not keep up with an average 11-year-old are taken into account, the number rises to 5.2 million, or almost one in six of all 16- to 65-year-olds. The figures are also high in Wales and Scotland.

But this is not just a tale about how illiteracy can drag individuals into a spiral of poverty, depression and crime - it is an economic one. Each child who does not learn to read at primary school will have cost society up to £53,000 by the time they reach the age of 37, according to research by the KPMG Foundation. That is £2bn each year, spent on truancy, benefits, prison, psychologists, doctors and treating substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, obesity and more. Figures from the charity Rainer show that almost half of all prisoners have a reading age at or below that of an 11-year-old.

Investing in adult literacy could be one of the most important factors in turning around poverty, unemployment and low performance in schools, according to Ursula Howard, director of the NRDC, based at the Institute of Education.

When it comes to tackling illiteracy, no one can accuse the government of not trying. Since 2001 it has invested more than £3bn in a Skills for Life programme and plans to add £600m per year up to 2010. Already, almost five million adults have taken up classes in basic skills.

It is not just adults being targeted. Headteachers have complained that they cannot keep up with the number of new initiatives being introduced through nurseries and schools. There are books for babies, toddlers and three-year-olds, books for 11-year-olds and for boys.

But do the endless schemes make any difference? A report from the Institute of Education concludes that taking children out of class for 30 minutes each day over 12 to 20 weeks - as part of the Every Child a Reader scheme - does make a difference in the long term. Children who were given the 'reading recovery' in 2006 were still 12 months ahead of those peers who were not a year later.

But, it is not cheap. 'Every £1 spent on reading recovery gives between £15 and £18 back to society in prison costs, health services, unemployment,' said Jean Gross, director of the scheme. 'But a primary school might have a budget of £2,500 per pupil and the cost of reading recovery is £2,400.' Although the government will pay half the costs from September, it is still a big hit for headteachers, she added.

Others are more sceptical about efforts being made in schools. 'People who do not learn the basics end up doing the same thing over and over again,' said Dr Bethan Marshall, an academic at King's College London. 'They are taught in exactly the same way again. Then they are identified as the children who are failing,' she added. 'Increasingly children are set by ability, and these children are always in the bottom set because they cannot read or write. They might be good at some things but because of that they are cast as irredeemably stupid.'

Jan Eldred, of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said the big challenge was to break down the British culture, which pushed down those who failed the first time around. She highlighted a quote by Baroness Helena Kennedy: 'If at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed.'

One area on which the institute is focusing particularly heavily is the army, where up to half of all new recruits have literacy or numeracy skills below those of a primary school leaver. 'If you invest time and money in people, they can still make good soldiers,' said Martin Rose, the institute's basic skills development officer for the army, who said being able to read safety signs was crucial.

At an army education centre in Tidworth, Wiltshire, Kirsty Alderson trains recruits in basic reading and writing. She recalls one group of soldiers complaining about having to learn to write letters. 'They were getting quite grumpy, asking why they needed to do it. Then one of them asked if he could go outside and take an important phone call - he came back and said it was a call from a holiday company who told him he needed to write a letter.' Corporal Antony Beckett, 39, a chef in the army, left school with seven CSEs but by the time he joined the forces had become 'complacent' and struggled to 'pen a letter'. Improving his skills transformed his confidence.

For others the chance to read a book or sign their name came much later in life. Charles Kean, 76, was brought up in Oldham, Lancashire, with his seven sisters. 'We were poor and had no shoes to go to school,' he said. 'When the man from the school board came knocking on the door my mother hid us in the backyard. When I turned nine I was sent to Styal Homes, in Cheshire, as an evacuee for four years. I went to the classroom and they wanted me to read a book but I couldn't. They wrote the letter D on a hat and put it on my head to say I was a dunce.'

When he was 12, Kean began working as a gardener. 'After that the only thing I learnt was to tell the time.' After the war, he moved to Manchester and became a brick-layer. 'I could not read or write, but no one noticed,' he said. 'I remember people were reading newspapers and I would get the Beano and look at the pictures. I was embarrassed. I did not know my A to Z, could not fill in forms or even write my name. I put a cross instead of a signature. My wife helped me to pass my driving test because I could not read the Highway Code. She read it out to me. I could not even write a Christmas card.'

All that changed five years ago when Kean decided it was time to go back to school. 'Eventually my tutor said, "Mr Kean, you are dyslexic",' he said. 'In the olden days they did not know that.' Kean has never read a book in his life, but now he has decided to try for the first time. 'I am on page 12 and I feel fantastic,' he said, admitting he shed tears because he was so happy. 'I have waited so long.'

It is people like Kean who will be targeted next week by Quick Read authors. One of them, Gilda O'Neill, has written an 84-page book about her childhood in London's East End. 'Some kids do not have that middle-class entitlement - that books are for you, theatres are for you and museums are for you,' said O'Neill. 'I fell in love with the idea that little black marks on paper open up a whole world - it is a shame that some people cannot share that.'

For her fellow author, Quinnell, reading was something he never even tried until his late 20s, and when he did 'my eyes would get tired and I would miss paragraphs', he said. Things have changed dramatically. When the rugby star decided to try Harry Potter again, he finished the last one in the series - which has 607 pages - in six days.


As Difficult as ABC


Proust and the Squid
Review by Stephen Cave
Published: April 5 2008 01:33 | Last updated: April 5 2008 01:33

Proust and the Squid: The Story And Science Of The Reading Brain
By Maryanne Wolf
Icon Books £12.99, 288 pages

You are right now doing something breathtakingly complex; something so impressive, it might without exaggeration be described as the high point of human civilisation. This astonishing feat is your effortless ability to translate the tiny black squiggles packed on to this page into a vast array of images and ideas in your head.

As 2008 is National Reading Year, now is an appropriate time to reflect on what an improbable achievement this is – and Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain does just that. “Reading is not natural,” writes Wolf, a professor of child development: only a few thousand years old, reading is too new to be encoded into our genes. Which means we have to learn it the hard way.

But, as Wolf explains, whereas the Sumerians, Phoenicians and Greeks took more than 2,000 years to develop reading and writing as we know it, we expect our children to master these skills in less than 2,000 days. Many do not, with terrible consequences for their life chances.

For some, their problems are a product of a word-poor upbringing: middle-class children have on average heard 32 million more words by the age of five than their less advantaged peers. This makes a difference: the best predictor of how easily a child will learn to read is how often they are read to as a toddler.

But for others, the problem lies deep in the structure of their brains. Wolf, whose family has a history of dyslexia, explains how fluent reading is dependent upon specialisation in the brain’s fast and efficient left hemisphere. Those with reading disabilities tend to rely disproportionately on the right hemisphere, usually dedicated to more creative but less precise tasks. This leaves them unable to keep up with their left-brain contemporaries, often condemning them to a life of being told to try harder. But Wolf believes that this group, whose alumni include Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Einstein, both can learn to read and often have special talents brought on by their right-brain focus.

Like an alphabet soup, this book is often unclear but full of tasty titbits. One is Wolf’s description of the particular challenges of learning English, in which, for example, “heard” rhymes with “curd” but “beard” with downright “weird”.

Studies show that the mishmash of English spelling means that certain forms of reading disability have a greater impact on our children than on those trying to master more transparent languages such as German or Spanish. Although Wolf is not so bold, wee mite thairfour konklood thad, fawe the sayk ov awer cidz, wee shud strayton owt thiss orfull lannegwitch wunss annd fir awl.

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