“Over seven million British adults are illiterate. It’s a soul destroying condition.”

Over seven million British adults are illiterate. It’s a soul-destroying condition, says David Reynolds, an adult-literacy teacher. David is one of the founders of the publisher Bloomsbury and has worked in publishing for 47 years. He is also the literacy editor for The Reading Agency’s Quick Reads programme. Here, he shares his experience of teaching adult-literacy.

The article ‘Who Can’t Read This?’ appears in full in the May edition of The Oldie magazine, out now in print and in a digital version.

A small, middle-aged man called Don suffered from appalling dyslexia. When he was a child, his left hand had been tied behind his back in an attempt to make him write with his right hand – a classic cause of befuddlement. He and I made no progress whatsoever. But he was sociable and liked coming to classes.

A welder, he made roof racks and had invented a tube – inside which plumbers transport pipes – that you see welded to the roof racks of vans everywhere.

The young man with Tourette’s was angry, and the drug dealer was soon back in prison. A young woman called Sonia – perhaps because of long illnesses – had left school without learning to write even the letter ‘a’. She was a hairdresser’s assistant, washing people’s hair and sweeping the floor. She was desperate to become a haircutter, but needed to pass a written health and safety test. She sat in the corner copying letters on prepared sheets, scowling and sometimes tearful.

Yet there were successes.

Thelma, in her sixties, wanted to read her own letters instead of having her husband read them to her. Within a few months, she was doing just that – and, after a year, she read a book: a ‘Quick Read’, written for ’emergent readers’ and containing mostly one- or two-syllable words. (Not many three-syllable words come easily to adults who are poor readers – just a few that are frequently seen, notably supermarket, cigarette and alcohol.) Thelma moved on to fat beach-reads which she swapped with her daughter. Jimmy joined the class and told me about his six-year-old son, Mike. ‘He came to me with his book and said, “Daddy, can you help me read this?” I had to say, “Go away. I can’t help.” But I want to help.’

Jimmy had left school in Jamaica when he was nine to help his fisherman father. Now he was a builder’s labourer – and a quick learner. Much that he had learned before he was nine came back to him. When I mentioned commas, he called out, ‘Hey, Teach’ – he insisted on calling me Teach – ‘I remember commas. We was doin’ them when I left school.’

After coming to two classes a week for a month or so, he was reading at home with Mike. ‘Can I bring him to class with me, Teach?’ And he did – to the evening class that ended at 8.30pm.

For the rest of the year, father and son sat side by side learning together. Sometimes Mike made even Sonia smile.

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