Literacy as a life changer 39



View Profile

When he was Chair of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy in the early 1980s, my good friend, the late Arch Nelson, was inspired to create a book ‘On the importance of being literate’ with contributions from educators, politicians, writers and community members.

I was reminded of the book’s title by something Richard Flanagan said in his recent acceptance speech as co-winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s 2014 Literary Award for Fiction for his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Flanagan, who earlier had won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for the book, said at the PM’s event, “If me standing here means anything, it’s that literacy can change lives.”

Arch Nelson passionately believed that too, and in the introduction to ‘On the importance of being literate,’ he wrote “The level of literacy in our society is an index of the respect, the affection and the compassion we have for each other, and these things are – or should be – basic to our way of life.”

Flanagan showed his own passion for literacy by donating his prize-money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), an organisation dedicated to improving literacy among Australian Aboriginal people in remote and isolated areas.

In making the gesture, Flanagan brought the wheel of writing and reading full circle – the ILF was founded by the owner of the well known Brisbane indie bookstore, Riverbend, in 2005, and has been supported by the Australian Book Industry ever since.
I also donate a portion of my writing income to the ILF, but unfortunately my book sales are not in Flanagan’s league.

Like Flanagan and Nelson, my experience as a researcher and an educator convinces me that literacy can change lives, because it helps people take control of their lives.
To paraphrase the radical Brazilian educator, the late Paolo Freire, literacy helps us to read the word and the world.

It was therefore disconcerting to read in the Sydney Morning Herald of 13-14 December, 2014, that primary and high school students in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, are not achieving literacy and numeracy targets, and that children starting the first year of school are less academically prepared for the transition than they were three years ago.

This is despite the introduction of standardised tests at regular intervals at school, and the fact that some 96 per cent of the state’s children were involved in some sort of pre-school program.

I don’t claim to know why improvements aren’t coming, but I do know what I first learned some 30 years ago when I was Secretary of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy: the acquisition of literacy is a complex process, that the ‘aha’ moment of ‘cracking the code’ comes for different individuals at different times. That no single ‘system’ or strategy of teaching works for everyone, and that learning to read and write is a long-term proposition, not something acquired overnight. This is especially true for those adults who may have had unhappy experiences of school and have been out of the classroom for a long time.

Not only do writers have a vested interest in having a literate population, but, like Arch Nelson (and, I suspect, Richard Flanagan), I believe that the level of literacy in a nation is a mark of the extent to which we are able to understand the world in a critical way, to respond to it, and to participate meaningfully and sensibly in it.

Do you think literacy levels are lower than they were when you were at primary school, or is it just that we are more aware these days of the importance of reading and writing in an increasingly complex world? How important in your life is being able to read and write?

Darryl Dymock

Dr Darryl Dymock has developed an ?encore career? as an author, writing mainly non-fiction and short stories. When not poised over his keyboard, he works part-time as a senior researcher in adult and vocational education at Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. His latest book is Extending your use-by date: why retirement age is only a number, published as an e-book in March 2013 ( Darryl has previously worked as a clerk, high school teacher, taxi driver, soldier, and university lecturer, and he has lived and worked in three Australian states, England, and Papua New Guinea. He has four grown-up children, and now lives in Brisbane with his wife and his laptop. You can find Darryl?s blog at

  1. Yes. Most of the young ones can’t spell!

    1 REPLY
    • I know a lot of people say youngs can not spell. I couldn’t spell either and was an avid reader. Still am, my husband just couldn’t and still can not understand why I can not spell. BUT, I must say at the age of 66 I am getting better. All my grandchildren can spell and have a wonderful grasp of the English language. More than I did at their ages.

  2. Yes! Many younger ones can’t spell, the avid readers are much better as I have witnessed with my grandchildren who are all reading books well above their age level.

  3. Reading helps with spelling, grammar and general knowledge! As well as being interesting they are learning so much. Very important!

  4. Yes, I agree spelling has deteriorated, but now – thank goodness! – there’s a push to reintroduce it and grammar. How are kids going to understand how the language works without a basic comprehension of the structure? Also, we see much more of the younger ones’ writing now with posts and texts etc; I hypothesise that years ago we wouldn’t have seen the illiteracy etc that we do now.
    Read, read, read!

  5. Oh yes much worse,but usually only where kids are dragged up & not brought up with parents who have no parenting skills who don’t worry about education,unfortunately there are many of them around these days,so the kids can’t read,write,& a lot have no social skills….

  6. Every generation has had people lacking skills in reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar. The concept of a ‘Golden Era’ in education is a myth. Modern media is laden with errors and is sometimes detrimental to supporting the development of correct literacy skills in our younger people. Until individuals, as adults, take responsibility to improve their levels of literacy, nothing will change.

  7. I think so when i was. At school in the late forties and early ffifties great attention was paid to readinf writing and arithmatic. When reading at the completion of a book we were given what was called a cimprehension test where we were questioned on aspects of the book and what the story was about and what certained comments and phrases meant. Those who didnt reach a certain mark read the book again with a teacher. Speeling had particular attention paid to it as did grammer. In these days kids are taught to read and spell by word recognition if it looks like it and sounds like it the your brand os spelling will do. As for grammer well…..guess what grammer has not been taught in schools since the Wyndam report was introduced into schools way back in the sixties you cant even buy a text book on it unless you try specialist 2nd hand book stores.

    2 REPLY
  8. Thanks for this article Darryl. Your comment “no single ‘system’ or strategy of teaching works for everyone” was very applicable to a family I know. One child was having great difficulty with whole word identification, but their intelligence was amazingly high. Further investigation showed they needed to know why “apple” was not “orange” and a wonderful teacher added back “sound it out” to her teaching.
    Not only did it work for my friend’s child, many of the children in the class, mostly boys, also benefited. Reading will never be their favourite pass time, but they are literate because parents took the time to ask “Why?” and one teacher increased her workload to bring about the solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *