Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Raising Literacy Levels in Australia

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 46% of Australians are sub-literate. (source)

This means that 46% of Australians do not have the prose literacy skills needed to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work. This not only includes people who cannot read at all, the illiterate, but also includes the rather large number of people who can read individual words, or simple sentences, but do not have the comprehensive skills to understand an average sentence or longer, or a paragraph.

At first this revelation shocked me. But on more recent experience, I understand it now, and can honestly say I can see the evidence of this in my day to day life. Even in online services and tools that rely solely on the written word (ie blogs, Facebook, Twitter, forums etc), I am noticing how many people struggle to comprehend what they are reading. It's not that they cannot read each individual word, it's that they are unable to comprehend the words together in the form of sentences and paragraphs. And what often happens is they compensate by taking in what they think the sentences and paragraphs say, and not what they actually say. I would say it's easily a good 20 - 25% of people I read daily (and often interact with) would fit in to the sub-literate category.

Never has this been more evident to me than recently. If you like, go and read the most heated comments in some of my earlier blog posts. How often do you see me respond with "You are not reading what I have written." or "But that is not what I have said."? It's alarmingly frequent.

As a librarian who believes deeply in literacy being the one thing that will better our society, I sometimes wonder how to contribute more to raising people's literacy in not only Australia but the world.

One popular school of thought is that writers should simplify their writing, take it to a more basic level.

I believe this is "dumbing down" and I believe it makes the problem worse. Can you imagine if we dumbed down brilliant wordsmiths because some people don't have the literacy skills to read them? One of my idols in language and writing is Stephen Fry. He plays with language, constantly tweaks it and polishes it. I can't imagine not having writers like this, who are not afraid to really get their teeth into words and language to read. Not to mention the fact that I dream to have the skill that he shows with language.

Newspapers are traditionally written for an 11 year old reading ability. Let's leave it to them to keep that level, and let's gently encourage people to practice their reading by finding writing that they LOVE. Recreational reading is fun and relaxing, or it should be - there's another whole blog post on forcing or guilting people into reading what is "worthy", which I may write in the future. If someone has found the subject matter interesting enough to pick up the book, or click on the link, or open the magazine/newspaper/comic, then that is the first major step to improving their literacy. The more someone enjoys reading, the more they're going to strive to do it, to expand what they are reading.

As writers, I feel we should all be honing our skills, not just opting for the easy road out and going for that approach that newspapers take, of sticking to the 11 year old reading level. As our writing gets better and better, so do the skills of our readers. At least this is what I believe.

The best way to improve your writing skills? The same way in improving all skills... practice. It doesn't matter if every piece isn't a masterpiece, but if you're doing it, and polishing it as you go, then you'll get better and better at it. You want practice at it? Then keep doing it.


TribeRingers said...

Once again, you have hit the 'nail on the head'.

This is something that needs to be worked on.
I quite often see at my work, young adults, who can't even spell what most would find basic words.

Mari said...

I don't know how closely the system in Australia mimics that in the states. I spend a considerable amount of time in my work life in elementary schools. I'd say classroom teachers are spending much less time teaching the fundamental skills of reading comprehension. I see classroom where all ideas are accepted even if they have nothing to do with a passage being discussed. I think this trend is ultimately working to not teach children how to gain information and make critical decisions about text.

I agree with your point about forching people to read "what they should". I was struggling with this a bit last week as my 9 year old decided to reread some old favorites that are now quite a bit below her actual reading level. I was wise enough to stop myself before asking her to read something more challenging, and I'm glad I did. The more I thought about it the more I realize I want her to love reading and if that means sometimes taking a break and finding some comfort in old friends, so be it. She move on soon enough. And had I said, "No, you must read X or Y" I certainly would have squashed some of the love of reading she has.

One last point. In my work I am seeing more and more children who are not developing vivid imaginations through play. At such a young age now children are spending large quantities of time in front of various screens and not using their imaginations. I think this deters becoming effective readers because the brain doesn't learn the value of ideas and story. The brain learns about visual information and multi-tasking with ever changing pictures.

Sleepydumpling said...

Thank you both for your comments, I think I will do some more writing on this subject.

Mari, Paul Holdengraber (of New York Public Library) recently said that the current education system values information over imagination, and asked if that's the kind of society we wish to live in. I think it's a very valid point.

I'm not entirely sure it's the screens that are to blame. We grew up with television and video after all.

I think it's more the societal importants on raw information rather than a mix of the information and the ability to apply it.