The social impact of declining literacy rates
Simon, a Brisbane-based 48-year-old, works with young men in crisis. Many of them have literacy struggles and patchy education, and some also have criminal backgrounds.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these young men come across those structural barriers,” Simon, who asks that his last name is not published, says. “[People] just see an angry young bloke, they don’t see the hurt or the trauma or the abuse.”
Adult low literacy in Australia is a widespread problem. Despite increases in funding, shifting initiatives and prominent politicians decrying a lack of progress, rates continue to decline. Since 2000, Australia has slipped from fourth to 14th in the OECD’s rankings of reading literacy. The ramifications of these results aren’t just evidenced by a statistical slump – people with lower levels of literacy have fewer job opportunities. They are also massively overrepresented within our prisons.
Today, Simon works with schools, educating teachers about reaching kids who have experienced trauma.
“When a teacher gets frustrated and yells, they’ve disengaged all those kids from learning. That’s what happened to me.”
Simon has a dyslexic learning difficulty, but for years he just thought he was dumb. When he wrote words they twisted in front of him, and numbers had a way of getting jumbled up when his pen hit paper. “It’s like my wires are crossed,” he says.
During one school spelling test, Simon only got two words right. He recalls the teacher’s reaction. “She said, ‘Everyone, look at Simon ’, and I was made to stand on the table in the corner for an hour or so while everyone looked at me and made an example of me.
“You try your hardest because you don’t want to be shamed, blamed and humiliated. I developed a belief system … I’m trying hard – as hard as I can – and I’m still getting blamed for it. That must mean I’m dumb.”
From that moment Simon “drifted through education”, spending his time window-gazing, waiting until he was old enough to leave school.
“I had internalised a really bad narrative about myself as being dumb, stupid and just not good enough and … that followed me into jobs,” he says.
Simon lists his resumé of unsuccessful workplaces.
“I had about 50 jobs between [age] 14 and 30. You name it, I’ve tried it – meatworks, electrician’s labourer, factory-worker jobs.
“People would say to me, ‘Simon, you’ve got good people skills, but your writing’s just not up to scratch.’ The structural barriers I was coming across reinforced my low sense of self … so at the time I drank heavily and I was just caught up in self-loathing.”
Given his struggles, Simon can understand the notion of searching for a sense of belonging on the wrong side of the law. “Like a lot of young boys, I could have got involved in that, because it would have given me a sense of identity which a lot of these young men so desperately seek,” he says.
When the system fails those with literacy struggles, it can mark the beginning of a vicious circle.
Griffith University’s Dr Hennessey Hayes and La Trobe University’s Professor Pamela Snow have researched the impact of low literacy during the legal process. In “Oral language competence and restorative justice processes”, they outline the danger of being unable to communicate with a police officer or effectively express remorse or sorrow in a court setting.
Once individuals find themselves in prison, they have limited opportunity to improve their circumstances.
In 2015, Corrections Victoria and the Victorian government announced a $78 million investment in prison education.
While Corrections remained tight-lipped, Box Hill Institute, which is delivering the in-prison literacy program, revealed students would be taking an online literacy and numeracy test developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research. This would determine suitability for a vocational course.
Literacy consultant Diane Snowball is pleased that low literacy rates in prison have gained attention. She is, however, concerned about online testing.
“If I want to find out about someone’s reading, I need to sit down with them while they’re reading, and find out what they’re doing,” Snowball says.
“I know enough about the teaching of reading to know exactly what I’m trying to find out. I couldn’t do it with an online test. I couldn’t even really find out what their fluency was like because I’ve got to hear them read; we know fluency affects comprehension … The type of assessment used is actually a very important starting point. I hope Box Hill TAFE know what they are doing because the work that they’re going to do is so important.”
ACER spokesman Dave Tout says that although Corrections Victoria and the state government announced an intensive focus on prisoner literacy testing in 2016, online prisoner literacy testing has already been in place for a number of years.
“I spoke to Corrections Victoria officers in March or April  about how to use the assessment and some concerns and issues and how to interpret the results,” Tout says. “I think Corrections Victoria are pretty aware of some of those issues and challenges.”
He says ACER assessments, including this one, are monitored on an ongoing basis. He notes the test is in the process of being reviewed.
“In that sense, it’s continuous improvement. Our plan is to release an updated enhanced version but, fundamentally, it will still be the same sort of assessment,” he says. “The assessment of where somebody is at is the first cog in a big long wheel. There’s a big challenge in how you actually move a prisoner forward. [That’s] not an easy task.”
Those who work with prisoners re-entering society say more needs to be done to support them.
Flat Out is a non-profit community-based organisation that supports women after they leave the prison system. CEO Jake Argyll is a passionate advocate for his clients, who often have “complex” needs. Most are not very literate, he says.
“They’ve got mental health [needs], they’ve got alcohol and drug issues. Often they’ve got histories of family violence or current family violence, histories of sexual assault and childhood abuse. Most of them have been through the child welfare system when they were young’uns.”
Argyll notes how difficult it is for clients to apply for Centrelink payments, let alone navigate the legal system.
“It’s just like, ‘Come on, isn’t this telling anyone a story? Is anyone listening?’ ”
For Argyll, the prison system is deficient in many ways.
“You get punished when you go to jail, you get punished again coming out, because no one wants to employ you because you still don’t know anything; you’ve been in jail for years.
“We’ve got to ask ourselves at what point do we as a society accept our responsibility in creating a world where people can be completely disadvantaged from the moment they are born, that their lives have no other trajectory?
“It’s so completely heartbreaking,” says Argyll. “Every day I cannot understand how we, as people, can let other people suffer like that. All you’re doing is setting them up to fail.”
Argyll says sometimes women ring Flat Out crying.
“[We remind them] this little thing happened and it knocked you off your socks today, yesterday you were good, today not so good, tomorrow will be a bit better,” he says. “You’ve got to try to be kind and gentle with their feelings and gentle with their experience.
“Let’s not get all judgy on people, they’ve already been judged.”
For Simon, his life was turned around by one-on-one support. With help, he passed the testing to join the Australian Navy. During a work trip to Vanuatu he met an English teacher and, after a yearlong exchange of letters, they became a couple.
“She was the first person that believed in me,” he says.
While Simon and his partner backpacked around the world together, he was grasping the intricacies of his own language. He fondly recalls taking spelling tests in youth hostels.
“She would give me 10 words a week… The trouble was I had missed out on the basics, so with her help, I was starting to pick up the basics of spelling.”
This support encouraged Simon to pursue further education. It was also around this time his dyslexia was diagnosed.
“Before that, my spelling difficulty was tied up with who I was as a person. Since then, I’ve been able to say to myself, ‘It’s okay, I’m smart, I’ve just got a spelling problem that I’ve got to learn to manage.’
“A lot of [my clients] become absolutely disengaged from work and school because they don’t have the skill set or the self-confidence.
“My passion is to go in and tell them my story and say, ‘Look, I had 14 years where I drifted from job to job and basically wasted my life. I can honestly say I’m two years off 50, and I feel like I’m just getting my life back where I want it to go.’
“That’s why I do this work. I go into schools, I tell my story to the young blokes so they don’t waste so much time.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Spelling trouble". Subscribe here.