What I See with Peter Fiorenza: Struggle to read, write is a worry and more of an issue than you might think

Peter FiorenzaGeraldton Guardian
A child practising the alphabet.
Camera IconA child practising the alphabet. Credit: Tetra Images

The recent Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival was a huge success.

From opening night, through four days of interesting people and events, the festival continued to hold its unique standing. It’s a fantastic opportunity for locals and visitors alike to immerse themselves in a plethora of poems, prose, and art.

There is no doubt that festivals like Big Sky give many the opportunity to indulge in something that gives them immense pleasure. It’s an opportunity to take the skills of reading and writing away from their daily use and use them to engage in what could be described as mind-stimulating pleasure.

But have you ever wondered what it must be like for individuals who can’t do this?

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The SBS documentary series, Lost for Words, really got me thinking about this. The program takes a group of several Australians who struggle to read and write and puts them though an intensive course. The television show was a real insight into the daily trials and tribulations of such individuals.

Simple tasks like going to the supermarket or writing an email were shown to be real roadblocks.

As an educator, I find this to be very worrying. How can a First World nation, like Australia, find itself in such a position?

According to the Australian Government’s stylemanual.gov.au, an estimated 44 per cent of Australians cannot read and are performing at a level 1 category standard.

Categories are determined by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

At level one, individuals are expected to read simple words and sentences. As an educator, I find this to be very worrying. How can a First World nation, like Australia, find itself in such a position?

The Style Manual website lists factors that affect literacy. These include where people live, their education and how they access information.

When you consider these points and take into account the modern living standards of most Australians, the 44 per cent statistic is baffling.

In 2008, George Roberts wrote an online article for the ABC, revealing an international survey had indicated nearly half of all Australians can’t read or write properly. Roberts goes on to write that analysts from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that seven million Australians were below the acceptable benchmark. “And 70 per cent of the population does not adequately understand how numbers work — limiting their ability to perform basic tasks like reading medicine bottles,” he wrote.

In 2021, things haven’t changed much.

It is some solace though, to know that both Britain and the US lag even further behind Australia.

And it would seem technology has not assisted to improve the situation much at all. In fact, in many respects, the use of laptops and mobile phones, or the way these devices are used, could be part of the problem.

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