Adult Literacy

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Behind the gates of our elite schools lies the promise of a top notch education... with high fees comes the expectation of good results.

But Yvonne Meyer says after paying tens of thousands in fees each year, her son wasn't even taught to read and write. Yvonne discovered, to her horror, her Grade 5 son was barely literate. 

“The thing about my son was that because he was fairly bright and because he was such a nice pleasant, quiet child the teachers thought he was fine”, Yvonne said.

He wasn't... like so many Australians he could hardly read.

For 38 year old Susan Sales the simple task of deciding what's for lunch is a huge battle.  Susan is functionally illiterate... That means she has barely enough reading and writing skills to cope with everyday life. “Basically just bluff my way through I guess”, Susan said.

Susan was forced to leave her job at a fast food outlet when its computerised registers became too complex and even supermarket shopping is a challenge. “If they change the packets then I'm lost”, she said.

Understanding a simple headline is something many of us take for granted but for almost half the population even that is impossible.  A staggering 44% of Australians don't have enough reading and writing skills to function effectively day to day... it's our hidden epidemic. “I thought I was the only one in the world that couldn't read and write”, said 58-year-old Colin Smith.

Along with Susan and eight other mature age students, Colin is back in the classroom learning the basics.  The former forklift driver says he and his classmates are society's forgotten.  I'm in my 50s and I've found there's a lot of people out there who can't read and write either”, Colin said.

This embarrassing problem doesn't discriminate.  “He didn't know how to read as in sound out or how to spell as in put the sounds back together again to spell correctly.   If you can't sound out, the only words you can read are the words that you've memorised”, Yvonne said.

Yvonne Meyer sued her son's school and won a confidential settlement.  With the help of one on one explicit instruction he went on to successfully complete school and is now at university.

“Today were going to be looking at careers.  Jobs are no longer for life so when we look at careers today were going to be looking at lifelong learning”, said teacher Teresa Vizintin.

After almost three decades teaching in mainstream secondary schools, Teresa mission is to intercept the teenagers who drop out.  Some frustrated by literacy battles, others lack the skills to cope in a regular school environment.  “You realistically need Year 12 just to get your foot in the door.   Jobs are changing, technology is changing jobs and people need to be consistently retrained.  So what we've got to say to people now is don't be scared of it, embrace it”, Teresa said.

While technology means Susan Sales no longer has to struggle with maps, our computer age presents a whole host of new problems according to Sally Thompson, head of Adult Learning Australia.  “The literacy bar is definitely growing.  So a good example is a cleaner:  100 years ago a cleaner was someone with a bar of soap and a good strong arm, nowadays a cleaner is someone who has to read chemical packages, instructions on chemical bottles, that has to use heavy equipment, that maybe has to fill in an online timesheet.  So even the most basic jobs require literacy and numeracy skills now”, Sally said.

Its 22 years since Susan last set foot in a classroom but simply being in the adult literacy class is liberating.  Here students don’t have to hide or make excuses.  Teacher Megan Cmiel said, “We've had some really good outcomes.  I have a gentleman now who has been through this program and is now doing his Masters in youth work and he's amazing”.

“I remember in Grade 5 I was taken into a little room with a teacher and I had to do a spelling test and I couldn't get past Grade 3 and she just sat there and laughed at me”, said Mick Goss.

Unfortunately Mick’s story is a familiar one.  For years Mick was illiterate, the turning point coming at age 40.  “When I became a dad and you're encouraged to read to your young child books and everything and I found that was very difficult”, Mick said.

The single dad is proof you're never too old to learn.  His mission now is to assist others and to lift the illiteracy stigma.  Mick's greatest achievement is helping son Bayley.   “Now I can help him with his homework and everyday living”, he said.

Susan Sales is determined to become literate and to forge a career in aged care.  “They say life begins at 40, maybe it’s a chance for me”, Susan said.

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