By Richard Pooley
President George W. Bush’s poor grasp of English grammar made him the target of much scorn from liberal commentators in the USA. These language mavens implied (or even openly stated) that such a failing made him unfit to be president. They appeared to ignore the fact that he, influenced by his formidable mother, Barbara, tried hard as president to do something about the appalling level of illiteracy in the USA. Comedians made much of his reactions on September 11, 2001, when an aide whispered into his ear what was happening in New York and Washington. But what we was he doing at that moment? Reading to 8-9 year-olds at an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida. Why? It was part of his nationwide campaign to improve literacy levels.
A year ago I wrote an article criticising the British government for relying too much on the written word when telling us how to behave during the Covid pandemic. They had started out well: “Stay at home!”, “Keep two metres apart!”, “Wash your hands!” These early messages could be seen as well as read: the words were accompanied by images of a person inside a house, hands being washed and people standing two metres apart. In France, where I was staying during the first lock-down, the recommended minimum distance apart was one metre. My local boulangerie displayed a sign showing the 0.65cm baguette as a helpful – if inaccurate – guide to what a metre looked like.
But then the messages put out in the UK changed… and they could no longer be shown in pictures, only in words:
Of course, no reader of Only Connect will have any difficulty understanding these words, even though many of us Brits did wonder how being watchful – my dictionary’s first definition of alert – was going to help us see an invisible virus. But what about those Brits who can’t read?
According to the 2015 OECD Survey of Adult Skills, 16.4% of adults in England have “very poor literacy skills.” The survey explains what this means. Such people, who are able to “read brief texts on familiar topics and locate a single piece of specific information”, are deemed to be “functionally illiterate.” 16.4%: that’s one in six adults or over seven million people. A year later the OECD reported that “1 in 4 adults in the UK struggle[s] to read a bus timetable.”* A key fact in the British government’s 2011 Skills for Life survey partly explains why this is so: 7% of adults alive in England a decade ago had left school without knowing how to read or write. The USA does even worse: a 2017 survey showed that fewer than half (48%) of US adults could read proficiently. Rumour has it that this includes the last (and future?) president.
In 2018 a report published by the World Literacy Foundation stated that the cost of such illiteracy to the UK economy came to £36 billion a year, the third highest in the European Union after...wait for it… Germany and France. The annual cost for the world was well over $1 trillion. I don’t know how those figures were arrived at but it’s surely beyond doubt that such high levels of illiteracy in some of the world’s richest countries not only entail a huge economic cost but also have a terrible impact on people’s health and well-being.
Stop reading for a moment. Ask yourself how many times during a recent day you needed to be able to read in order to know what to do or where to go. When I did this exercise, I only came up with a couple of examples at first: reading the name of the place I was trying to get to on road signs; and following a recipe in a cookbook. Then I remembered the letter I’d received which confirmed a medical appointment and the instructions on when and how to administer some new eye drops. And what about the 65 emails and text messages I’d received or sent? And those articles that needed editing?
Imagine you’re an illiterate married man tasked by your wife with buying a whole lot of stuff at a supermarket. A shopping list is useless to you. However, you watched your wife write a list and then – alleging that her awful handwriting made it impossible to decipher – got her to read it out to you. Fortunately, you have a good memory. You can’t read the signs above the supermarket aisles – Cereals, Baking, Toiletries, etc - but until recently all those pictures on the packets, tins and bottles were quite adequate to enable you to choose the right thing. Nowadays however, not only does your wife want to reduce her weight (and yours) but has also come over all environmental. She now insists you check that there are no artificial flavourings or colourings, no added sugar, no palm oil – or at least that the palm oil comes from ‘sustainable’ plantations. The list of no-nos is getting longer with every visit to the supermarket. There is only so much you can ask of the staff there. So you’ve taken to hovering around the Canned Vegetables section, hoping that a middle-age woman unencumbered by children or a packed trolley will help you – a poor, clueless male – find what you wife requires. You have no problem buying fruit and vegetables. But can you tell the difference between pork mince and beef mince? Better not risk getting it wrong, so you’ll go to the meat counter and ask for the mince you want even though it may be more expensive there. And so on.
Does this scenario seem implausible? Surely the man’s wife would know that he was illiterate? Not necessarily. Over the past few months, I’ve read numerous accounts of the ways in which people who cannot read or write manage to hide their disability from those closest to them. The best-known, at least in the USA, is the story of John Corcoran.
Corcoran was raised in the 1940s in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a loving, middle-class family. His five siblings learned to read. For various reasons he never did: “It was like opening a Chinese newspaper and looking at it. I didn't understand what those lines were.” He passed exams by getting friends to help him cheat. He managed to finish his education in 1961 by stealing the exam questions and graduating with a degree in education and business administration. Astonishingly, he decided that because there was a teacher shortage he would go into teaching. By all accounts he was an effective and charismatic teacher for the next seventeen years. How did he do it?
“I taught a lot of different things. I was an athletics coach. I taught social studies. I taught typing. I could copy-type at 65 words a minute but I didn't know what I was typing. I never wrote on a blackboard and there was no printed word in my classroom. We watched a lot of films and had a lot of discussions.
I couldn't even take the roll. I had to ask the students to pronounce their names so I could hear their names. And I always had two or three students who I identified early – the ones who could read and write best in the classroom – to help me. They were my teaching aides. They didn't suspect at all. You don't suspect the teacher.”
His wife only found out that he was illiterate when their three-year-old daughter insisted he read from a new book – Rumpelstiltskin, a story he didn’t know. Up to then he’d pretended to read: “I was making the stories up – stories that I knew, like Goldilocks and The Three Bears. I just added drama to them.”
Corcoran went on to learn to read when aged 48. It was Barbara Bush, wife of then Vice-President, George H. Bush, who made him do so. Corcoran saw her on television talking about the problem of adult illiteracy and realised for the first time that he was not the only adult who could not read or write. He set up a foundation in 1997 dedicated to eradicating illiteracy. His book – The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read: One Man’s Triumph Over Illiteracy – became a best-seller.
In September I met a man who was perfectly open about his inability to read or write: in French in his case. William Cauret, who is probably in his late thirties, had come to clean the chimney flue attached to the wood-burning stove in our house in France. I don’t recall what made him admit his disability to me, but he said he’d left school at age 11 because he hated it and wanted to “work outside” with his grandparents. His only regret was the trouble he’d caused his parents, who’d had to face the wrath of the education authorities. He’d passed his driving test because the written part involved ticking boxes and someone else had read the questions out to him. But he wouldn’t pass it now; under the new exam format, candidates are required to write whole sentences. He’d recently attended adult literacy classes in a nearby village but gave up after four sessions: “We were treated like idiots; made to do drawings.” He’s done well as a chimney sweep. Too well. His young son wants to follow him into the business and sees no point in staying at school. Cauret senior worries that his son won’t be able to do his job if he cannot read and write properly. Chimneys in France must be swept at least once a year even if you only light a fire once or twice. Your buildings insurance is invalid if you don’t have an Attestation de Ramonage. As I write this article, I have M. Cauret’s pre-typed one in front of me. He asked my wife to write in our names, address and contact details. He wrote only three words: BOiS (wood), JONT (lining, misspelled), and ESPECE (cash). However, his figures are all perfect. He told us that he loves maths and has always been good at it.
In my next article I’ll look at why so many British adults are functionally illiterate and what the UK can learn from countries with a much higher adult literacy rate. I’ll also look at the decades-long ‘reading wars’ in the USA, which go a long way to explaining why 48% of US citizens cannot read well.
But before you go, try reading and understanding this:
How wlel can you raed steimhnog wchih icnudles an eruomons anuomt of psylalyloibc vubacraloy?
If you’re British and older than around fifty you should not have had much trouble decoding that sentence, apart perhaps from one ‘word’ – all of which are anagrams. But a younger Brit will probably have found it harder. If you’re from the US, it will mostly depend on the state in which you received your primary education. Many subscribers to Only Connect have Arabic as their native language. If you’re one of them, I suspect you found the sentence much more difficult to decipher than the Brits did, and not just because you’re a non-native English reader.
How about this one?
slEghin llpsnegi si a emthagrin rfo sheto arengiln ot dare.
Took you a bit longer? I’ll explain why next time.
*The OECD report actually said “1 in 4 adults in the UK struggle to read...”. “1” is singular and so it should be “struggles” - a grammatical mistake in a report on illiteracy.