PC 174 Can’t Read well. Can’t Write well.

The Coronavirus pandemic is currently dominating our lives; we will get through it! The fundamentals of life remain and this PC is about one of these basics.

I find it truly sad that in 2020, in such a well-developed society as that of the United Kingdom, by any standards one of the richest countries in the world, there remain pockets of almost Dickensian poverty. In addition to a small percentage of our inhabitants whose income levels are extremely low (Note 1), there is another poverty that shouldn’t happen, be allowed to happen …… and that’s the lack of the ability to read and write well.

If you are poor, you naturally worry about your ability, first and foremost, to feed, clothe and provide shelter for your family; schooling takes a back seat. But here in the UK it’s been compulsory for over a hundred years; in 1880 your child had to attend school until his or her 10th birthday, then the Education Act of 1996 raised the age limit to 16. In 2015 it became compulsory for a teenager to be in either education or some form of training until their 18th birthday. And yet some 10-15% of these teenagers leave without an ability to read and write well. That last adverb is important! ‘Lacking the essential (reading) skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society’ is not the same as ‘being unable to read or write’; this percentage for functional illiteracy is similar to that of, for instance Sweden, Germany, France, the USA or Ireland.

The UK’s Department of Education reported in 2006 that 47% of school children left aged 16 ‘left without having achieved a basic level of functional mathematics and 42% without a basic level of functional English. Every year 100,000 pupils leave functionally illiterate!! (You have to believe the statistics!)

Some parents believe it’s the State’s job to school the next generation; that they don’t have to take any part, don’t have any responsibility in the education of their children, so abrogating their role as parents. Additionally, if they themselves have never understood the value and benefits of learning how to read and write well, it’s possible their children will be raised in a cultural and literacy vacuum, develop an inverted snobbery for the theatre and for opera, for instance. I can’t imagine it but I am sure there are homes where there are no books or magazines.

PC 174 1

The ancient wisdom and spellbinding poetry of Homer’s Iliad  and Virgil’s Aeneid have formed the backbone of Oxford University’s classic degrees – read in Latin and Greek – and I will put my hand up and admit to never having read them, these stories of myths and daring-do from centuries gone by, but I devoured novels as a schoolboy. My father gave me a 14th birthday present of membership of the Companion Book Club. Everyone month the chosen book would come through the post, together with a magazine encouraging me to spend hard-earned pocket money on other published works. One should remember, however, that there was little television and the internet-enabled visual and audio offerings unknown; time to read.

It’s through reading that you develop your vocabulary, your understanding of language, of its nuances and subtleties. And if you can’t read and write well, you’re not able to fill out forms confidently, read legal documents, carefully the label on a medicine bottle, understand instructions for instance on how to put together some IKEA flatpack furniture  –  you know, the one with an illustration of a woman with a smile and a screwdriver?

“I’m not well read, but when I do read, I read well.” Kurt Cobain

During my time in the British Army one of my senior NCOs couldn’t write well and it became apparent when he had, for instance, to complete his soldiers’ annual reports. He felt ashamed that, as a man aged 30 something, he couldn’t express himself. I got him some professional help although recognised he had been too ashamed to ask for help before!

In the film Renaissance Man, Danny De Vito plays a redundant advertising executive who is sent to teach English to a bunch of underachieving army recruits. They are portrayed as a class from hell and De Vito finds it impossible to engage with them, until he introduces them to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They hadn’t heard of Shakespeare let alone Hamlet but gradually, by setting the story in a situation with which they could identify, they started to understand. Watching them, it was like Daffodil buds opening in the warm spring sunshine.

So how do we encourage parents to break the mold, to get them and their children to become proficient at reading? Their children might be very dextrous when it comes to using a mobile, to playing games, texting, using instagram but the cornucopia of the literary world remains unknown. Some schools have engaged with a local old persons’ care home and found a symbiotic relationship when it comes to reading; the older population encouraging the younger generation to read.

PC 174 3

Writing well? In the C21st, this may be debatable, the ability to write cursive script …… as opposed to tapping away at a keyboard ……. but however you ‘write’, George Orwell warns: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well. And if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them

If you are in this category, of lacking confidence to read fluently, it’s unlikely you’ll have signed up to read my inane scribbles …… but I am planning to create a podcast and record past PCs so they will become available to listen to. But will you bother, if you don’t value the richness of our written words, of our histories, of our stories both fact and fiction?

In the UK we have a current prison population of about 85,000. And it’s estimated that 50% of those locked up for whatever misdemeanour are functionally illiterate; so they weren’t able to even read and understand the charge sheet? In an effort to reduce reoffending rates why not make it a condition of those expecting being granted the standard 50% reduction of their sentence that they must pass a basic English language examination?

I was slow to appreciate the writing of the late American author Philip Roth; then I watched the film ‘The Human Stain’ with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, a story based on Roth’s book of the same name. (Note 2). I was hooked – and read this book and others. Roth once called the current US President “humanly impoverished, ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

Does it matter? Hell yes!

Richard 19th March 2020

PS “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” David McCullough

Note 1. Poverty in the UK means not being able to heat your home, pay your rent, or buy essentials for your children. The constant stress of your financial circumstances deprives you of the chance to play a full part in society.

Note 2. Coincidentally one of its chapters was titled “What Do You Do with the Kid Who can’t Read?”


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