Thursday, 10 July 2008

Can’t read, can’t write

This Channel 4 series (3 x 1 hour) starts on July 21st. In the meantime Channel 4 is inviting interested parties to come to a public debate about this topic (July 15, London, 6-9.30).
‘Can’t Read Can’t Write is a shocking and moving Channel 4 series, which reveals the hidden realities of Britain’s adult literacy crisis. Nine illiterate adults enrol for a six-month reading course taught by inspirational, controversial and award-winning teacher Phil Beadle, which they hope will change their lives. Each has spent over ten years in the education system and yet has failed to learn the most basic skills.’
At the bottom of the ‘
event listing’ some well-known names appear. These include Alan Wells, former director of the Basic Skills Agency; Ursula Howard from the NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy); and the series presenter Phil Beadle (whom I had not heard of until yesterday).

Now, if you want to hear more about PB he was interviewed by Andrew Marr in his
Start the Week Radio 4 show on Monday (July 7th). Don’t worry if you missed it – you can listen, like I did, to the podcast. The podcast is 45 minutes long but if, after listening to the introduction, you press the 15-minute fast forward button twice you’ll get to the start of the interview (it follows on from an interview with David Blunkett).

Parts of the interview are rather alarming and I await the TV show with interest. It begins with a brief mention of the kinaesthetic methods (pipe cleaners, plastic, and balletic hand movements) used with an Oxford woman, Linda, who had a library of classics but was unable to ‘read a single letter sound’. After working with PB for 6 months she was ‘…reading Shakespeare and writing Shakespearean sonnets’ and ‘literally danced her way into literacy’.

PB goes on to state that ‘people who work in adult literacy’ say that complete illiteracy doesn’t exist and that ‘they have an interesting approach to the truth’. The discussion also covers synthetic phonics, skewed funding and quite a bit more! If you’re interested PB also has his own web site and he writes for the Education Guardian.


Chris Jackson said...

It's an interesting idea, isn't it, "complete illiteracy" - in an infant perhaps? Not recognising one word. I've met native speakers who don't recognise more than a few words and have no disability other than being dyslexic. I met a woman who had been 35 years in the country but couldn't read bus numbers or any words. But complete illiteracy, no signs, no numbers, no logos? I don't know

Ruth T said...

While the government keeps insisting on defining literacy, numeracy and language in terms of skills that people have or don't have or need to be fixed, there will always be these horror stories of the millions who can't or won't ....

Maybe it's time for an overhaul of the thinking behind it all - perhaps in terms of the different USES which people make of literacies, numeracies and language in their lives - all tied to the social practices around which these things revolve.

It suits the government perfectly well to promote this simplistic deficit view of skills - as they can then redefine the parameters eg. when they redefined 16 -19 year olds as 'adults' 3 or 4 years ago - and gee whiz! All of a sudden the adult 'success' rate in basic skills skyrocketed!

Rachel said...

i've always thought that it is insulting and dismissive to refer to adult literacy students as "illiterate" and often the people who use that word are largely ignorant about literacy teaching.

Also, I don't really understand what PB hopes to achieve by insisting that people are called "illiterate"; i certainly wouldn't agree that the adult literacy teachers i know are immune to the extent of people's literacy problems which seems to be what he's implying?

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see the programme and to see how he taught people to read from scratch in 6 months!


rutht said...

Having seen episode 1, I have to conclude that this show has much to do with ENTERTAINMENT (reality-show style) and very little to do with ADULT EDUCATION.

Anonymous said...

Please could you provide a link/s to the Government materials for complete illiterates i.e. not mentally disabled or EFL, just can't read anything and need to start at the very beginning, like some of the people in the programme.

Thank you.

Maggie said...

In response to the anonymous request received this morning (see above) I am providing the link to the free government produced learning and teaching materials for Literacy, Numeracy and ESOL.

From this link you can reach resources at five levels (i.e. Entry 1, Entry 2, Entry 3, Level 1, Level 2). Note that Entry 1 (not Level 1) is for beginning adult readers.

(You will need to copy and paste this link into your browser as links do not work in Blogger comments.)

However I must stress that the materials are designed to be used by qualified literacy teachers as part of well planned lessons. They are not designed for self-study. The front of each set of teachers' notes states this clearly: "All text in the learner’s material is to be mediated by teachers. The materials are not written to support learners working independently".

So I strongly urge Anonymous to check out the possibility of joining a class in his or her local area.

Good luck! …and feel free to email me via my web site if you need further help.

Rachel Simpson said...

Hi Maggie! I'm ranting watching the second episode of this programme tonight. Yikes. He should have spent six months with some Lit tutors before spending six months with students. Doesn't he realise that the curriculum is not the recipe book that they have in schools for literacy hour? Doe he want to come to my house or yours or anyone else who teaches SfL (and many other folks I'm sure) and see the piles and piles of stuff we have to help people read and write better?

There were moments when it was really obvious that he usually works with children who have no option but to accept his behaviour as they can't easily get up and go home.

There are so many times that I feel that no-one knows what we do or cares what we do other than ourselves and the learners and the bean counters. This programme just confirms that we are invisible :(

Maggie said...

Thanks for your comments Rachel, I couldn't agree more.
Please see the new post "Can't read, can't write - episodes one and two) for more on this... listed this morning (29 July 08)

Emma said...

As an experienced teacher, and literacy advisor, I was appalled at the five minutes I watched. I know I should- and will - watch it through from begining to end at some point but I was so angry I had to switch off. Not angry that the documentary was being made- this needs to be talked about!- but angry that the chap who was asked to teach these adults wasnt qualified or experienced enough to do so. I watched for five minutes, when he asks them to cut up their words- and one lady kept asking why. He wasnt able to answer this- and actually told her she was being awkward- and everyone learns differently, and that he can't meet all of their needs as he has eight to cope with. If he DID understand why so many people fail, and the strategies to help them- he wouldnt have insulted her in this way and would have been able to help all learn- in the way THEY learn. If he can't do that with 8 how does he expect teachers to do it with 30 children? (which I have done effectively for many years) If I am doing an activity like this, I am doing it to show the children or adult non-readers how the code works- ie how the words we say are created when put on paper. I would be trying to find the sound combinations in the words- not 'words in words' as he did- or he is encouraging whole word recognition. Which we don't want to encourage- we want them to use the code, based on how it is created phonetically.
He didnt use any letter sounds- only letter names - which is why these adults are there in the first place!! They dont know the code! If the lady was to see 'writ' as it sounds within writing, she wouldnt be having problems spelling (and why use those words to teach non-fluent readers at that stage?!!) They need to go back to learn phonics- ie how the letters are put together to create the sounds we make when we speak. If they do it properly, they only have to learn a few that dont 'work'- if they dont learn to de-code they have so much information to try and learn they will never manage it. We can only retain so many words if memorising - by learning the code we save ourselves an awful lot of hard work! Its why some children seem to learn to read quickly- because they are just memorising. They then have problems spelling, and moving to more complicated words- because they can't de-code, and can't remember them all. Absolutely these adults can learn to read- in about 12 hours (not consequetutively - an hour per week with work inbetween) if taught properly. As can childrn and adults with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. The five minutes I saw made no sense at all- and certainly wouldnt be of any use to non-fluent readers. Some fun cutting perhaps- but he didnt understnd WHY they needed to know how a word is formed, and what parts are 'sound combinations - ie how to 'sound it out' effectively. eg that 'writing' is made up of either 2 or 3 sound pictures or whatever you want to call them - either wri + t + ing or writ- ing - with the w not being pronounced (as I said, why use a word like writing? Why not learn to walk first) Do these adults know the basic code- ie the sound each letter represents? eg 'a' (as in 'african') They can then put together 3 letter words by understanding the code- not memorising the whole word. And this gives them the beginnings of an understanding how to read and spell, and how the code works. The lady having problems with the cutting would then understand what the exercise was for- although I would have have told them where to cut them up- if I was at that stage because Id taught them those particular sound combinations. After single letter sounds, they can learn the other combinations - these are letters that when put together create a new sound picture- eg 'sh' or 'ch'. And then on to combinations like 'ai' - and learn which combinations can make the same sounds eg the sound 'ay' can be 'ai as in 'rain' or 'ay' as in 'pray' etc. If the adults could recognise these combinations they would understand why they are cutting up the words into segments - which is what they do the other way around when spelling. So when spelling a word- eg 'brown' - I would tell them it has 4 sound combinations. They would know to start with 'b' and then 'r' ('dont put them together- they sound the same as when apart so dont make it more complicated than it needs to be) - and then they would need to know what makes the 'ow' sound. It could be 'ou' as in 'a+b+ou+t' or 'ow' as in 'c+ow' - the last sound would be 'n'. Without the letter sounds and knowing the sound combination 'ow'they couldnt do that. If they know the code they would try 'broun' and 'brown' - and usually they can see which looks right when written down- or we could look it up in a dictionary together.
So they could spell words like 'boat' - by spliitting it into the first sound- b - second sound 'oa' and last sound 't'. 3 sounds! 'b' 'oa' and 't'. Easy!
Anyway I didnt mean to give a phonics lesson- but I guess I just felt so cross that he was making these adults feel even worse- when it was the teaching that wasnt effective- exactly the same problem we are having worldwide!!(along with other reasons of course- there are some amazing teachers out there)
If you dont understand the research, can't follow the recommendations as given in the Rose Report, Inquiry in the AU Teaching of Literacy etc then learn what to do before you bungle things up even more for people already feeling terrible- thinking it's their fault. Why put someone who doesnt know this infront of people already struggling. Many children learn to read without great instruction- it's the one who NEED systematic, explicit phonics instruction that need to be given that opportunity. Like these adults. Why didnt the program makers choose someone with those skills? He's a great teacher- but not of literacy! The sad thing is that many adults who struggle and watch this will think that he has a solution- and from what I saw he seems to have just gone and found some information and charged in there- without any understanding of how the brain processes this information and how the code works. Ok, Ill get off my soap box now. :-) I shall watch the rest, and I hope it gets better.
Emma Hartnell-Baker BEd Hons, MA Special Educational Needs

Emma Hartnell-Baker said...

ps for those who are struggling, and want to do something at home, you could work through 'Reading Reflex' by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuiness. As long as your friend can read she or he can work through this with you- and although it's written for parents to use with children, these are the things you need to start with. It's a very user friendly book- you dont have to work through it with a teacher if you dont feel confident enough yet to go to a class etc. I hate to recommend this as the author is a bit on the strange side- but it is a good book, with resources. Her mother, Diane McGuiness wrote a book I found fascinating and the method in the Reading Reflex book came about because of her work. Her book is called 'Why children fail to read and what we can do about it'- Diane McGuiness. A must for teachers and anyone else interested in this topic. See if you can still find a copy- Penguin I think.
'Read Australia'

Maggie said...

What can I say?
Wow - you obviously feel even more strongly about this than I do. I don't think you had better watch the rest of the TV series - you might explode!
Seriously though - many thanks for all your thoughtful and informative feedback on this. Wish I could reply at length but am so bogged down in my numeracy diploma studies that neither this blog nor my web site will be getting any attention at all until June.