Introduction to Building Literacy: I'm not just anybody



Here’s what I often tell new practitioners:

“There are only two things I know for sure about teaching adult literacy:

1) You will probably not get rich…..  2) but you will be rewarded.”

I was reminded of this soon after I (semi-) retired. Let me tell you the story of what happened. I think it might encapsulate the purpose of this Guide.

After almost 50 years working in the field of adult literacy and basic education as a teacher, Adult Basic Education college administrator, civil servant, adult literacy consultant and university professor, my wife and I retired to B.C. I joined the local volunteer literacy program in our region and was trained as a tutor. As it turned out, I was invited to join the Board of Directors. Then, the following summer, I was asked to conduct a learner satisfaction survey. So, with another board member, we interviewed all of the learners we had had over the previous five years to see how satisfied they had been with the services they had received. The survey included both those who had completed their program and those who had dropped out or stopped out.

One remarkable, unforgettable lady I interviewed named Marie, who was 82 years old, told me how she had raised a family as a single mother and worked as a cook and waitress in various B.C. restaurants all of her adult life. But, she added, “I never could read or write.”

How did she do this?

She told me she had cooked all the recipes in various B.C. restaurant kitchens or in her own kitchen over the years and had memorized everything she needed to know. Waiting on tables was, she said, “A matter of remembering.” After a lifetime of never telling anyone she was a non-reader—she was too ashamed to tell anyone—she decided to enroll in our literacy program. She eagerly told me how she soon learned to read and write.

Then, as she told me, when she commented to her restaurant boss that she had completed a literacy program, he was astonished. Amazed! He exclaimed: “What! You couldn’t read through all these years! Really?” She replied, “Right. Never could.” Then he said, “I never knew anybody who could do this!” She told me, “I just looked him square in the eye and said, ‘I’m not just anybody.’”

Marie went on to tell me the reason she had enrolled in our program was so she could help her grandchildren with their school homework. Now she was taking them to the local library and reading with them.

I know most tutors and teachers in our field could tell similar stories. Powerful stories of lives transformed. After all these years I can attest that this is a very rewarding field—but…. The point I want to make is this, if Marie can look the boss in the eye and proudly say, “I’m not just anybody,” then so can we. So can we have a stronger voice in the public domain. We too should be proud of our work. Our learners should all be as proud as Marie.

It is easy to say this…not easy to accomplish.

As will be discussed in this Guide, we live in a class-based society that, unfortunately, stigmatizes adults with low levels of formal education—especially those with low, or no literacy skills. The historical reasons for this are discussed in Section Two A Brief History of Literacy and Section Seven Our Landmarks through the Lens of Literacy Classism.

Although there is no data on how many live “in hiding” in society, we know that Statistics Canada (2013) has estimated 31.7% of adults in Canada aged 16-65 years are at level 2—meaning their literacy skills are inadequate to fully participate in today’s society. There is an added 12.6% at level 1—meaning they live with a severe lack of skills. Finally, there is an estimated 3.8% of Canada’s adult population scoring below level 1. Here is a group of complete non-readers who are often the hardest to reach. Like Marie once was.

While these numbers are highly important and useful, for us they are but the tip of the literacy iceberg. After a life-time in literacy education, I have become all-too-familiar with what this stigmatization means to so many adults. Adults are not statistics.

Through the years I have wondered—and researched—why so many have been caused to be “hidden in society.” It is an issue that not only affects a huge proportion of our society but our own literacy field feels the prejudicial effects of this stigmatization by association. In recent years I have been trying to name this “elephant in the room.” It never had a name before. I am calling it “literacy classism.”

Here’s the hopeful part of this. In recent decades, sexism and ageism have been identified and “named.” Prejudice towards marginalized groups, like the LGBTQ community, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, women in the #MeToo Movement, and Black Canadians, has been named. These and other such groups have since gained a strong voice, greater pride and greater dignity as Canadian citizens.

Why then is there a huge population with low literacy hidden in society due to literacy classism? I believe our field needs a new conversation—a topic that is raised along the way in this Guide, and especially discussed with some suggestions for change in Section Seven: Towards the Future: The Need for a New Conversation.

I hope this Guide will help build a stronger, prouder field of literacy by building our skills and our knowledge and, I hope, by building advocacy for literacy as a profession. If Marie can say, “I’m not just anybody,” we can do the same. And, it is my hope so will more of our learners.

Read More

Quigley, A. (2017). Will anything be different in the 21st Century? How 107 million adults and the field for adult literacy became so marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 39-54.

Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. (2013). Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) (Catalogue no. 89-555-X). Ottawa: Statistics Canada https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-555-x/89-555-x2013001-eng.pdf