An unexpectedly joyous documentary series highlights how many people struggle with literacy every day. By Celeste Liddle.

SBS documentary Lost for Words

Some of the Lost for Words participants, graduating from their adult literacy course.
Some of the Lost for Words participants, graduating from their adult literacy course.
Credit: SBS

Sometimes I realise my life could have been quite different. Like a disproportionate number of Indigenous kids, I suffered repeated serious ear infections that resulted in countless eardrum perforations, related hearing loss and constant tinnitus. These conditions still plague me in adulthood but are managed through regular check-ups with an exceptional specialist, as well as monitoring and medication.

My mother introduced me to reading and writing early, which perhaps led to me, as a child, clinging to this form of communication as an effective one for me. I wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was seven and required a couple of surgeries, as well as speech therapy to correct the mumble I had developed from speaking words as I had heard them. Even though other communication skills such as speech and basic social skills were lacking, we were able to work on them so I didn’t get left behind.

The new three-part SBS documentary Lost for Words opens with the stark statistic that 43 per cent of Australian adults lack the necessary literacy skills to get through everyday life. My own journey occurs to me first – I could easily have been one of the 43 per cent. I am immediately interested in the journeys of the eight brave people who have decided to undertake their journey to adult literacy in such a public sphere.

We are guided through the series by actor and singer Jay Laga’aia – a man who himself admits to a previous struggle with literacy. This, he tells the participants and the audience, was partially overcome by being cast on Play School and engaging with reading and children’s literacy. He is a buoyant, relatable host and narrates the statistics, the challenges and the participants’ progress with compassion and understanding.

The participants themselves vary in ability, age and background. The small class is culturally and linguistically diverse, and includes an Aboriginal woman, a Maori woman and an African man. Disability plays a role for a majority of them, from hearing issues to dyslexia to genetic mental impairment. Poverty and an inability to continue school also appear to be factors.

The series begins by assessing the literacy of each of the participants against a scale where level five is the advanced proficiency to succeed in postgraduate education. Through this process, we get insight into what being part of that 43 per cent means in practice.

Two students, for example, are assessed to be at a pre-level one literacy – a level they share with another 620,000 adults in this country. This means they cannot read everyday words around them. Three are at level two – where people can display some comprehension of sentence structure and paragraphs but cannot understand them – a level they share with five million other Australians. The other three are assessed at level three, where lack of confidence impedes their progress, in common with 6.3 million other Australian adults.

These statistics are sobering. They illustrate just how many people around us deal with illiteracy on a daily basis and to what degrees. They also raise many questions about why this is the case. One reason the series identifies is the focus on sequential learning in our education system, where students are organised by age and then taught strings of skills that build upon each other. This means those who struggle and/or would benefit from other learning approaches can get left behind.

From these assessments, the educational experts in the series develop individual programs to assist each participant to develop their skills and to reach a goal that they choose and write down. We don’t get a lot of insight into what these programs entail but we do get some overall pictures. Play-learning, for example, is used to help participants develop positive associations with the progression of their skills and to build their confidence. Practising literacy through real-life applications is another method, best illustrated by participant Mike when he set up a practice cafe and honed his writing by taking orders from classmates.

What was most interesting to me was seeing various “hacks” the participants had adopted to navigate the world around them. The viewer witnesses these when participants are placed in “real world” learning scenarios. The 60-year-old African migrant Lamine, for example, writes a shopping list that consists of symbols that he uses to successfully navigate the aisles. Many participants employ smartphones for navigation and recording. These life hacks are brilliant and demonstrate the ingenuity of the participants in the face of their everyday challenges.

I have some criticisms. The series focuses on the achievement of individuals rather than delving into the systemic issues that put them in these situations in the first place. I wondered, for example, how different the participants’ lives might be if schools were adequately funded to provide a variety of education support workers skilled at dealing with learning disabilities. Or what might happen if the “one size fits most” sequential approach, which pushes kids through the system at set ages, were scrapped and replaced by more fluid approaches. Viewers might also become more tolerant and adaptable in their responses to the struggles of others if they were given more insight into the tactics the educators used to help the participants.

It was also a shame that some unique cultural intersections around illiteracy weren’t further explored through the diverse cast. The disproportionate Indigenous prison population, for example, has high levels of hearing loss and illiteracy. An opportunity was missed to educate the public on how, through proper care, discrimination and broader social disparities can be addressed, particularly given the goal of hearing-impaired Aboriginal participant Shania to become a police officer.

It also wasn’t until the final episode that we learnt that, despite his low English literacy, Lamine speaks five languages. This left me wondering about his literacy levels in these other languages. What specific approaches are needed for someone with demonstrable linguistic skill but with barriers in written language? The series would have benefited from another episode or two to permit these questions to be explored more fully and give additional space to explaining learning approaches and support tactics to viewers.

In the end, Lost for Words was a complete joy. As participants proudly threw their mortar boards into the air, I knew they were confident and ready to continue their journey. The program’s lightness and diversity, its great narration and exquisite sequence editing, makes it an enjoyable watch, full of hope and understanding. I wish all the participants well in their future educational endeavours and thank producers Endemol Shine for highlighting an issue which continues to affect the lives of so many people in our society.

Lost for Words premieres on SBS on September 22.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "Finding their words".

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