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What It Feels Like to Be Illiterate All Your Life

The reason illiteracy often disappears under the radar is because, by its very nature, it is socially, culturally, and financially exclusionary.

(Top photo: Someone who is not illiterate, reading a book to a child. Photo: dassel, via Pixabay)

I was 17 when I finished all 291 pages of Belle De Jour: Secret Diary of a Call Girl on holiday in Benidorm with my girlfriends. One might guffaw that Belle and her sexy, clumsy mishaps do not qualify as a real book; but even a work deemed "trash" had proved a 14-day struggle. Until then, I had never read a full book in my entire life.


Growing up Lancaster, on the north-west coast, my parents were incredibly busy working. They had four children, two dogs, two cats and a snake to support. We didn't have a bookshelf in our house, nor did anyone else we knew. As a kid, sitting down to read would see you named and shamed – reading books was for nerds.

I was far from illiterate, but the importance of actually reading was never prioritised in my world. At our school, the library had been converted into a behavioural isolation unit. We weren't really pushed to become the book critics of tomorrow.

For me, reading is now an important part of my life. But for many people, illiteracy follows them into old age. Norman Annal, now aged 69, had never really read a book until he retired. "I had my appendix out just before I was supposed to take my 11-plus [exam], and I had to stay home after that for eight weeks," he explained over the phone. "It was a crucial time, and I just slipped through the net: dropping into classes that were ranked lower and lower, until I was in the bottom set with other kids who could barely speak, let alone read and write."

Born in Thurso, a small town at the most northerly point in Scotland, Norman left school at 15 to become a construction worker. "I wasn't ever in an atmosphere or situation where books were appreciated: nobody ever spoke about books – there was no conversation like, 'What are you reading now?' or, 'This book is so good because…'" Norman recalls. "Being a manual worker, you could be completely illiterate and manage to get by. You could go through life quite easy. If you started reading a book on a building site, people would think you were mad as well."


Living at the intersect of being from a low-income family, slipping through the educational net, coming from an exceptionally rural area and from a world where the cultural cachet of reading a "good book" was non-existent and adult reading role models weren't around, meant that, for Norman, it became an unquestionable norm to never, ever need to read.

Norman now has the free time to try, late in life, to discover the joys of reading. But for many people who can't read, there's just no time to start. "I never read for pleasure," explains Danielle Taylor, a mother of two and horse riding instructor from Lancashire. "Books feel like a lot of work. I can never really remember reading at school, too. At GCSE I didn't understand the books – the language and stuff [of], like, Romeo and Juliet – and because I'm not a good reader, if the language isn't my own language I find it hard to read, and boring."

Literacy, and poor literacy skills, are much more common than you might think. The reason illiteracy often disappears under the radar is because, by its very nature, it is exclusionary. Most, if not all, modes of communication require some literacy skills: texting, looking up a name in a mobile phone to make a call, using Google Maps to find out where you're going. That's before the onerous process of applying for jobs, or seeking benefits, or managing your health comes into the picture. People who can't read and write are easy to forget about entirely. Illiteracy is also culturally exclusionary: if you don't read books or newspapers, your frames of reference become more limited. We imbibe and recount phrases and passages between groups of friends and our communities. We don't realise how much conversation and social connection begins with reading something.


"It feels like books that aren't Katie Price or something aren't written for me, so what's the point?"

"There's snobbery in books," Norman adds. "Now I read a lot, and I notice that I could read a book that somebody of higher intellect would regard as trash, and adore it. I would keep quiet about it in certain circles: I would say, 'Oh I'm reading Dickens,' and that would get you past it all. But I'm actually reading Jane Austen fan fiction at the moment, and I love it, but I wouldn't profess it."

In 2014 the Department for Education published a study that proved one in five children cannot "read well" by the age of 11. A more recent OECD report estimated that there are nine million working age adults in England who have low literacy skills (that's over a quarter).

"These figures won't account for people with a wide range of different conditions who find it hard to read for reasons other than not having the requisite skills," Sue Wilkinson, CEO of The Reading Agency, adds. "People with mild mental health conditions, for example, who find that concentrating on a book is hard, people with conditions like dementia or those who are blind and partially sighted."

The effects of illiteracy are far reaching. There's a direct correlation between poor literacy and crime; a recent UK study by the Literacy Trust revealed that "60 percent of the prison population is said to have difficulties in basic literacy skills". There is also a correlation between illiteracy and limited literacy and receiving effective healthcare. Public Health England report that 42 percent of all working age adults are unable to make use of everyday healthcare information, and as a result there's a direct link between low literacy and poor health outcomes. Of course, illiteracy also correlates with other factors, such as socioeconomic background, but even when those are taken into account illiteracy is still more likely to be a predictor of poverty, poor health and likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system than most other factors.


"The more I don't read, the harder it is to read. There's so many distractions nowadays, and having two kids I'm just so tired," adds Danielle. "But I do read with the kids, because I know how important that is, and I want them to have access to anything they want. Beyond that, getting better at reading just doesn't feel that important to me because it feels like books that aren't Katie Price or something aren't written for me, so what's the point?"

The joys of tackling a "good book" so often go unexpressed in worlds where there is no social or cultural gain to be made from doing so. In the areas where Danielle, Norman and myself are from, the focus is very rarely about mind expansion, wellbeing and imagination – all great things which reading can have a positive effect on.

The importance of reading is constantly imprinted upon us by way of our inability to survive without it. Stigmatising the illiterate, or those who don't like to read because they find it hard, comes in many forms, from judging someone's choice of book, to laughing and joking that someone finds it hard to read aloud, or to write totally coherently (remember this next time you hilariously attack someone for confusing "they're" and "their" on Facebook). It's impossible to put yourself in the shoes of someone who finds reading hard, because you've just read this. Bu when reading ability really is so often drawn on class and income lines we must cast the net wider to be more tolerant of, and helpful to, people who find it hard to utilise words for their benefit.



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