Lost for words

It’s estimated that the literacy skills of one in five adults in the UK have not developed beyond those of an 11-year-old.

However, it is often the case that adults with poor literacy fail to recognise that they are experiencing difficulties. “Many adults with low levels of literacy don’t realise they have a problem,” says Viv Bird, literacy and social inclusion project director at the National Literacy Trust. “People just get by, they may ask someone else to help them – often people with poor literacy are competent speakers and hold down jobs.”

But while adults with low literacy might cope with the problem, once they become parents they may not realise the adverse effect it can have on their children’s development. “There is a cultural challenge – parents with poor literacy often don’t see that they have a role to play [in developing their child’s literacy],” Bird says. “They often see it as the school’s responsibility. But children don’t go to school until they’re aged four or five – the period up until that age is an important developmental time.”

She adds that, by sharing books for example, parents can give their child’s development a vital boost. “Parents often don’t realise that their role is important in sharing stories and nursery rhymes – if children don’t get this help they may start school with underdeveloped skills and have to catch up.”

Aside from educational disadvantages, the children of parents with low levels of literacy may suffer in other ways. For example, if a parent struggles to complete application forms, they may miss out on claiming benefits. And an inability to read the instructions on medicine bottles can have severe consequences.

Children starting school is often the trigger for parents to get help with their literacy. “Parents traditionally come forward to say they can’t read very well when their children start school, but they tend to find that difficult,” says Carol Taylor, executive director for national development at the Basic Skills Agency. She adds that parents who are looking to improve their literacy can contact their local school, college, adult education provider, library or Sure Start programme and ask about literacy courses.

“There are family literacy courses, often lasting six weeks. We try to fit the course to the parent. It’s about teaching people sensitively. If the parent says ‘I need to help my kids with their homework’ or ‘I need to read a medicine bottle’, you have to teach them in that context – there could be work in libraries, for example, about how to find the appropriate book.”

Beryl Bateson, head of family learning at Birmingham Council, says there is often a stigma attached to admitting, as an adult, that you have poor literacy. “It’s not easy to ask for help, it’s not easy to say your literacy is not as good as it should be – parents often feel embarrassed and hide it,” she says.

In such cases, it is often the children who suffer the most. “Such parents are often less inclined to help their children at school. But there is a lot of adult education around through schools and colleges,” Bateson says. “We run programmes where parents can learn to improve their literacy – courses often take places two mornings a week during school hours.”

The literacy programmes run by Birmingham Council often involve eight or nine parents working with an adult tutor and a teacher working with their children before the two groups come together. Bateson says these are often an extension of what the child is doing in school. “It’s all about the attitude really. The key thing is not to blame parents or judge them – many parents have lots of reasons why they stopped learning such skills,” she stresses.

Jeanne Haggart, national development officer for family learning at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, says parents are often keen to improve their literacy if it means their children will benefit. “Parental involvement has a significant impact on pupil achievement,” she says “Parents with poor literacy skills are less likely to become involved in the child’s school work and those children are more likely to perform poorly in tests and not gain qualifications at 16. But all parents want their child to succeed and they will respond to an invitation to support their child.”

Useful resources
www.niace.org.uk (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education)
www.nrdc.org.uk (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)

‹ 3.5m adults aged 16-65 in England have a literacy level of entry level 3 (one level below that which 11-year-olds are expected to reach by the time they leave primary school)
‹ 600,000 adults aged 16-65 in England have a literacy level of entry level 2 (the level seven-year-olds are expected to reach by the time  they leave infant school)
‹ 1.1m adults aged 16-65 in England have a literacy level of entry level 1 or below (this is below the level of literacy expected of seven-year-olds)
‹ 26.7m adults aged 16-65 in England have a literacy level of level 1 or above (level of GCSE grades D-G)

Nan Jackson is manager of Rochdale Council’s partnership education service, which offers family literacy courses for parents with low levels of literacy. The courses prioritise parents of children aged three to six with few, if any, qualifications. They consist of a minimum of 72 hours’ provision for each parent and child.

“We have around 20 staff based in 17 locations, such as primary schools and nurseries. We offer help to parents through family learning – we reach them through our workers in schools who are in touch with parents.

“Parents often join family learning to find out how to help their child – they want to know how to help their children with their schoolwork. In family learning, parents may work on a curriculum area by preparing an activity to do with the child, such as making a toy or a wooden jigsaw. The parents will focus on reading and following instructions carefully as well as writing some instructions.

“If they’re looking at reading, the activities might include playing a game which involves looking at words. They might also go on a trip to a local park with a booklet to encourage talking – it’s about making literacy a fun thing.

“It can bring about massive change – it means parents enjoy working with their child. It can involve exciting ways of playing with the child, and it can also alter the behaviour of the child and their relationship with their parent for the better.

“Parents also become more confident about asking the school about things. They gain a literacy qualification themselves and some have gone on to do teaching assistant courses or further education.

“The benefits for the children are that they get one-to-one attention and the parents can come up with practical ideas to help them learn. A lot of the learning will also help parents to fill in forms or write letters to the teacher about their child.”

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