Tuesday 29 July 2008


This is another one of those posts which will, sadly, exclude non-UK readers of Stuck-in-a-Book. My little map at the side informs me that people across the world have little activity filling their days other than going to obscure destinations and looking at my blog - perhaps it's simply members of my immediate family taking surreptitious holidays, but... perhaps not. Anyway, I wanted to blog about a TV programme which is on Channel 4, and thus available to UK readers if they go to 4 on Demand.

Can't Read, Can't Write is a documentary series about adult literacy. Phil Beadle, for whom the terms 'maverick' and 'rough diamond' were
probably invented, takes a group of adults with reading ages between 0-12, including some who can't recognise or pronounce any letters at all. Over six months, he wants to teach them to read and write - despite never having taught anyone to read before.

If this sounds like a stunt or silly experiment, well, perhaps it once was in the minds of channel executives - but the pupils in the programme put a stop to any of that. They are such involving people, really loveable and make empathy as easy as turning the television on. Granted, we only seem to follow four people (perhaps the others didn't want to be interviewed?) but that's more than enough. There's James, 28, a labourer who has nobody to help him learn at home; Linda, 46, who listens to Shakespeare on audio book but doesn't know her alphabet; Kelly, so keen to attend lessons that she brings her children in the rain when she can't get childcare. The most wonderful, though, is Teresa (above). In her 50s, she couldn't read a word - and, through being introduced to a phonetic method of learning, is quite an able
reader within a few weeks. One of the most moving moments I have ever seen on television was last week, when she finished A Very Hungry Caterpillar. "I've read a book," she wept, "I've read a book." This week she joined a library, and got a copy of Little Women, the book she'd always wanted to read. The joy and pride across her face was stunning to watch, and certainly brought a tear to my eye.

Reading is something I take for granted - I remember struggling a little bit an early age (well, I was slower than The Carbon Copy - probably not very behind, but every minute's difference matters for twins) but it's something which I couldn't do without. That these people have to go through life without reading - usually because of an education system which couldn't differentiate learning methods, and sometimes even having to hide their inability from their families - well, it's shocking. Especially when these are people who really want to read, not lazy drop-outs by any means. I'm glad Can't Read, Can't Write has brought the matter to national attention, but more than that it is a spectacular piece of documentary, and utterly moving.


  1. Damn, wish I could see it! Sounds like my kind of show! Maybe someone over here will hear of it and start something like it.

  2. Oooh I think this is one I will have to get Mum to tape for me to watch at Christmas. I was crying just READING about Teresa. What a treat she has in store with Little Women! There was recently an elderly man in the USA, in his late 70's, who learnt to read. He did the talk show circuit with his teacher. That made me bawl! He had joined an infant class as a pupil and all the children adored him - that was a box of tissues subject!

    Here's to books!!

  3. And the saddest thing with Teresa that her own mother still didn't really encourage her.

  4. Looks like an interesting series. Adult illiteracy is often one of those things we assume doesn't happen in the UK anymore, despite those goblin adverts they used to show on telly. Shame I can't get 4 on demand here...

  5. I couldn't agree more Simon. I also hope the issue of adult innumeracy, which is also of critical importance to people's lives, will receive the same level of attention. I always suspect that there are a scary number of otherwise educated (and of course literate) people whose ability in mathematics is stuck somewhere around the age of 8.

    Dark Puss

  6. I was going to post about this Simon but you have said it all so beautifully there is no need for me to do so. I was very taken aback at the attitude of Teresa's mother when she learned to read. Teresa was desperate for her approval and it did not come. I thought the most moving moment was when she revisited her old school and was helping children in the reading class.

    Linda is extremely irritating but very lovable. She is just SO eager to soak everything up and this throws her occasionally and makes her ratty which is understandable.

    The sight of these ladies writing sonnets was wonderful. I cried last week and I am doing the same this week.

  7. You are right, I do wish I could this. Darn the BBC with all their innovative programming. This sounds both terribly sad and inspirational as well. There's recently been an elderly gentleman in the media lately, who went back to first grade to learn to read. Very sweet story.

  8. Literacy is a huge problem all over the world. We like to think that it isn't a problem in the US or the UK, but it is. I got volunteer training through a local literacy group who uses the ProLiteracy' Laubach method of teaching people to read. Anyone can learn to be a volunteer tutor through this method. It's great. Here's the link for the ProLiteracy site -- http://www.proliteracy.org/ .

  9. Okay, I'm not on a mission to find this documentary. I even got a little choked up reading your review. I can't imagine my life without reading and books. The fact that people get to be 50 in an "industrialized" nation just blows my mind.

  10. I meant to say: "I am NOW on a mission to find this documentary." :o)


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