At Connect42 (formerly Chatter Matters) we are advocates for 100% literacy. This aspirational goal is urgent for us and our broader community. It emerged from the deliberations of the diverse group of Tasmanians gathered at the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium at Tasmania’s Government House, November 2018.
How do we see 100% literacy being achieved?
Before answering this question, it is helpful to understand that a lot is known about effective reading instruction. There is hardly a human skill that has been studied quite as much as how we learn to read. Meta-analyses and insights from neuroscience have added to this knowledge greatly in the past two decades.
It is now clear what needs t be done with learners of any age to teach them to read and write well.
Much is known about how to kindly and practically solve the challenges of those learners who have specific difficulties and barriers to learning to read and write. Much is known about how to achieve 100% of the personal literacy potential of individuals given the nuanced differences in their processing profiles.
Much is known about how to achieve 100% literacy in the classroom. If practice informed by this knowledge were put in place in classrooms now, it would roll-out to 100% literacy in high schools in 12 years. Then in another 12 years, to 100% literacy in workplaces, and then on into the behaviour and values of the next wave of young parents influencing their children. And then beyond.
This robust permeation of literacy throughout society would make Tasmanian low literacy a shame of the past, relegated to history. As a society we would have extended hands of help to the affected, made repair, and raised our heads to look forward together.
Why is literacy important… and urgent?
Tasmanians do not yet have equal access to the essential connections, interactions, and instruction to develop flourishing communication, language and literacy. This is serious – weaknesses in communication, language and literacy underlie other inequities. And deepen them.
Tasmania has a challenge. Forty eight percent of people living in the State are functionally illiterate (1.). They do not have written language skills at a high enough level to manage the comprehension and self-expression demands of daily life when those demands are in written form.
This problem is now an opportunity for Tasmania. On our island state we can intentionally head for 100% literacy. Doing so will allow us to garner and share the full fruits of 100% of our people. It will show the world how a connected, nimble State can care for its own and share with the rest.
To be clear, the alarming statistic does not mean that 48% of Tasmanians cannot read and write at all. The ‘functional’ part of ‘functional illiteracy’ means that the reading and writing skills of those counted within that 48% are not robust enough to read and understand the documents people must engage with on a daily basis as they manage life in a modern society – like the letter from the council or from Service Tasmania; like reading a website; making an application online; understanding a prescription and so on.
Let’s also be clear about where our beautiful island sits in relation to the rest of the country on this measure. The whole of the nation is only four percentage points ahead of Tasmania at 44% functional illiteracy. The functional illiteracy challenge is widespread across Australia.
This can be changed. Tasmanians are eager to see it change. At Connect42 we are eager to help with that change.
Communication, language, and literacy affect every area of every citizen’s life: health and wellness, education, justice, restoration and repair, relationship, employment, violence and calm, tenacity and the richness of the potential of human agency. Ultimately, these are the skills that serve community, democracy and flourishing society.
This is why we are stimulating dialogue and calling for action for the journey to 100% literacy. Strong communication, language and literacy in all our people are pillars of society’s equitable flourishing. They bring knowledge and skills to participate fully.
The problem of low literacy is urgent and important. It is a social emergency. Those who do not learn to read and write well draw more heavily on the public purse in health, housing, unemployment support, justice and corrections. It is better to prevent a problem than to try to fix it later; or to try to heal its damage after that damage has been done and spread onto others.
This is why we aspire to #100PercentLiteracy.
We can use this understanding to compel action.
“Many members of our community cannot read and write well enough to navigate the activities of daily life. They cannot read the street signs or fill in forms at the doctor’s surgery. They don’t understand the information on the electoral enrolment form, and are unable to complete the census. They don’t know which bottle is shampoo and which is conditioner; cannot read the menu in a café or the labels on pill bottles; don’t understand the bus timetable; and ignore important letters.
Too often they feel “stupid”; self-esteem around their ankles. Their vocabularies are weak and they can’t express themselves. They often get frustrated and end up taking an oppositional stance toward authority. Or they passively withdraw and make themselves small. They might wear themselves out in hard-labour jobs, which are the only jobs they can get. If they get a job at all. Or they drift into a life of crime.
The consequences of poor communication skills are grave for them. And for society.”
~ Rosalie Martin, Speech Pathologist, Criminologist and Tasmanian Australian of the Year 2017 ~
How is written language acquired?
Written language is usually acquired through the connection of two underlying skills:
1) spoken language; and
2) knowledge of the written ‘code’ that represents that spoken language on the page – this ‘code’ uses the letters of the alphabet.
Both sets of skills are necessary: spoken language and code knowledge. When either skill is compromised, there will be a negative impact on understanding written language and self-expression in written language. Both spoken language and code knowledge are needed for literacy to flourish. A model known as the Simple View of Reading makes this clear:
particularly The Simple View of Reading
Gough & Tunmer, 1986
The complexity that exists in learning to read and write comes of the fact that each of these two ‘simple’ skills – comprehension of spoken language and code knowledge – are built of many subskills.
At a systems level, acquisition of written language by all Tasmanians rests upon gaining shared understanding across our institutions and population of how literacy is acquired in the individual. Shared understandings allow us to have meaningful dialogue about positive change.
An essential for building into broadly shared meaning is that low-level literacy is at root a language problem. Those who experience difficulty reading and writing have difficulty processing a) the meaning in words and the connections between words; and/or b) discerning and processing the phonemes (speech sounds), which are the smallest units of meaningful language. Both of these dimensions of language can be taught and should be explicitly taught not only to struggling readers but to all readers. Everything that can be done to build language in each citizen – from the smallest language unit to the largest – is positive activity toward 100% literacy.
When the ‘village’ of collaborators truly work together to tackle a problem with the greater good uppermost in mind, it will be upon trust that it is successfully achieved. Intentional growth of trustful connection with others, as well as within and between organisations, is essential for the journey to 100% literacy. Warm connection and collaboration are ways of being that engender trust. And with trust we can ‘cope with almost anything’ (2).
Is #100PercentLiteracy possible?
We say, ‘YES!’
We say ‘yes’, even though it is clearly an aspirational target. We say ‘yes’, because the knowledge exists to bring functional literacy to all but that small fraction of the population with cognitive disability at a particularly severe or complex level.
For our individual, fellow Tasmanians and Australians whose cognitive skills lie within this fraction, the language and communication skills that underpin literacy can nevertheless be developed for each to reach 100% of their personal communication potential. There is no doubt about this. This is dignity, inclusion and equitable care for 100% of our people. This is part of our campaign for 100% literacy.
For the majority of Tasmanians, however, functional literacy can be attained through the provision of equitable opportunity. This means working on all fronts toward family, community and institutional support for:
- Tender connection and positive, stable relationships: these are seedbeds of language development, pro-social growth, and personal resilience and agency;
- Oral language development: language enables knowledge;
- Evidence-based instruction in language and literacy across the lifespan but particularly in schools: makes equity possible;
- Development of curiosity: expands and empowers;
- Dignified employment: satisfies.
The aim is functional literacy for as many as possible. This shifts the decimal point to before the 4 on 48% illiteracy, to something more like 0.48% illiteracy.
As previously explained, functional literacy means reading and writing ability at a high enough level that the demands of daily life in a modern society, as conveyed in written language, can be understood and responded to. When any of us have achieved functional literacy, we will have enough written language capacity or support to then make choices about how much further we might wish to take written language skill in our own lives. We might not wish to read Ulysses or write novels, but we can succeed in organising and enjoying our lives without shame or judgment.
At the level of functional literacy, we enter the dignifying domain of choice and informed personal freedom. One can manage and assess all that is necessary; and make choice about all else according to personal preference.
What will it take to achieve #100PercentLiteracy?
The problem of low literacy exists right across the population age range and so needs to be well supported at all ages – simultaneously.
The levers geared for greatest change-advantage are the early years; the first three years of life. Then pre-kinder and kinder. Then lower primary. Then middle primary, upper primary, high school and so on.
Children in the first three years of life, pre-kinder, kinder, lower primary (and so on) are deeply influenced by family and community, family and community values and culture, and the conditions of the stimulatory input into their lives.
Maximising input that supports the conditions underlying strong literacy development in children also means maximising dignified, freedom-fuelled and hope-filled input into the lives of families and communities. Through no fault of their own, adult family members may not have received supportive literacy input when they were children – and so they do not know to value it or how to pass it on. Or in the experience of shame at not feeling they have achieved literacy, may have come to diminish its importance.
These adults, influential in the lives of their children, are worthy of as much respectful and nuanced supportive input as that which their children receive at school; for their own dignity, as well as for the role they play toward 100% literacy for their children.
Achieving 100% literacy requires delivery of scientifically-informed, individually-nuanced instruction and relationally-driven support for hope and motivation. And both the instruction and the relational support must take account of the individual differences and choices of individual Tasmanians.
What are the conditions for #100PercentLiteracy?
The first condition is strong language – oral language is the most common language form in our society; but the term ‘language’ also includes languages with visual symbols such as sign language and picture-symbol languages.
Equity is essential to hold in mind for learners who because of physical or cognitive differences are unable to use oral language. The challenges for learning written language are increased for these learners because the written language conventions of English are based upon the structure of oral language – its phonemic structure, morphemic structure, syntactic structure, semantic structure and pragmatic structure. Because of this, everything we might do in our families, communities and relationships that support strong development of and exposure to oral language, will also ultimately support the development of access to written language – both reading and writing.
It is through the development of and exposure to oral language that the meaning of what is written, or being written, becomes accessible to learners.
A second condition for strong literacy is located in the word itself. The word ‘literacy’ came into English from the Latin word littera, meaning ‘letters’ or ‘alphabetic characters’. The alphabetic characters are the symbols within the visual ‘code’ that represents spoken language on the page or screen. For the many who have learned literacy easily and use reading and writing regularly, the alphabetic characters are so familiar and so easy to translate between visual words on the page and spoken words, that the letters may never have been thought about as a ‘code’. But that is what they are. Letters are a visual code for spoken language.
So ‘literacy’, at its root, is the ability to decode and encode language using the alphabetic characters. When this can be done effortlessly, the meaning of the encoded oral language will emerge – provided the learner has strong oral language – which is why strong oral language is a first condition.
If the meaning of language is to emerge from the code, learners must be skilled at rapidly and effortlessly decoding and encoding spoken language using the littera: the alphabetic characters. To become skilled, they must be specifically instructed in the features of the code. Without this instruction, they will not be able to ‘get at’ the meaning of the coded language at all. They need code knowledge.
At the most basic level, this is phonics: knowledge about the way the sounds, or phonemes, of spoken language are linked with the alphabetic characters and the many conventional combinations of alphabetic characters.
This leads to a third condition. Learners need to be able to discern and identify the individual phonemes (speech sounds) of spoken language if they are to associate those phonemes with letters and conventional combinations of letters. This ability to discern the phonemes is called phonemic awareness.
Those who struggle to learn to read and write easily very often have measurable weaknesses in the core cognitive ability of phonemic awareness. It is an ability that is activated in early development through playing with sounds in rhymes, alliteration and made-up words.
It is also foundationally built through the stimulatory input into babies’ and children’s developing brains from talking to them and interacting with them. This talking becomes more powerful in its effect for developing phonemic awareness and language when it is in interaction that takes place with love, tenderness, joy and playfulness.
Nevertheless, even with all this in place, some developing brains come into the world pre-wired – through no fault of anyone – with deficits in phonemic awareness. For these citizens, specific interventions are required to support development of the fundamental skill of phonemic awareness, upon which the mastery of literacy depends.
And for many amongst us, love, tenderness, joy and playfulness are not consistently in place. Indeed, their opposites might be the norm. Because of this, part of the action toward 100% literacy must include supporting the capacity for family love and connection; for classroom tenderness and connection; for community and societal pro-social reciprocal warmth and other-minded connection amongst all members.
So a fourth condition, and one that is pervasive through the first three, is relational safety, positivity and warm reciprocity. But let’s not wash out the importance of this condition by using pale words. This is a condition that demands the brightness and vibrance of flourishing, freedom-expanding love between human beings. We humans thrive in brilliant, warm, respectful, tender connection – hearing and seeing each other deeply.
Is such support possible amongst flawed human beings, organisations and systems?
Government departments, education faculties, schools and businesses write of such aims in swelling ways in their values statements. But it will always be the very intentional living of those values statements in the minutiae of daily interactions that will create this in the world.
This takes support. From each other. In workplaces, in families, in the supermarket, in the street.
It won’t be if we don’t talk about it. It will be if we do.
And astoundingly to many, it’s all linked to literacy. Because warm connection is linked to language and our modes of interaction. Learning is dependent on the safety that arises in warm and respectful modes of interaction and a hope-filled sense of self. Love and connection are the basis of our positive agency and choices in the world.
Shared, tender, respectful connection and dialogue enlarge everything that is enriching about being human. In the words of American poet William Stafford, from A Ritual to Read To Each Other:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.
We at Connect42 don’t want an unreflected pattern that others made. We want intentionally, mutually, supported well-being in all Tasmanians to follow their stars. Stars rising from a connected society that knows and values the kind of person we each are.
To engage with the complexity of the 100% literacy opportunity, it is necessary to consider the insights and understandings of everyone touched by the challenge – personally, professionally or in their leadership roles. No one has access to all of the perspectives, features and variables of the opportunity. But when the views we do hold are shared with kind, other-minded connection, actions toward encompassing solutions begin to reveal themselves.
Connect42 seeks to maintain an engaged, respectful and collaborative connection with all who share the goal of achieving 100% literacy in Tasmania. Those relationships are central to achieving the goal, and maintaining and strengthening them will be at the core of the work.
Through collective dialogue, Connect42’s Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium in November 2018 revealed many possibilities for addressing the literacy challenge in Tasmania. A report of this symposium can be found here, but here is a peek at some of the ‘a ha’ moments:
• Tasmania needs a goal of 100% literacy (for all Tasmanians).
• We should strive for a goal of 100% literacy in Tasmania’s prisons.
• A pledge to help young people share their stories and be heard and understood.
• Intention: to raise the bar of literacy in my workplace.
• An intention to bring Western and Indigenous knowledge together to support future generations and build trust among peoples.
• Harnessing technology to increase language, connection and learning.
• A commitment to contribute to the building of community in daily life.
• Life giving dialogue about language and literacy enrichment in Tasmania and beyond.
• A commitment to working with people differently in schools, in prison, in community.
• Use this collective wisdom and power [from the Symposium] to allow social change around literacy. Take this new understanding (and way of being) back into our workplaces and into our lives.
Through collective dialogue, Connect42’s Connecting: The Heart of Literacy symposium in September 2019 revealed many possibilities for further actioning the literacy opportunities in Tasmania. A report of this second reflective symposium can be found here. And here are some of the ‘a ha’ moments:
• 100% literacy will lead to an island of hopes and dreams fulfilled, where we smile at strangers and are inclusive of all; where we support & nurture rather than judge; where opportunities to flourish are equally available to all
• Improved literacy will improve health outcomes.
• We need to tell individual, specific stories of personal transformation through literacy – to make it human.
• We need our own pilot studies harnessing more literacy experts in schools. Pilots based on research into existing successes at schools here and elsewhere.
• Open up schools after hours for adult literacy.
• Integrate specialists in literacy learning.
• Research the impact of poor literacy on the Tasmanian economy.
• Deep wrap-around support for 0-3 education.
• Create universally accessible information for people entering, living in and exiting the criminal justice system.
• Create safe spaces for learning inside the criminal justice system based on meaning, purpose, connection, trust and caring.
• Create links between criminal justice and social justice- recognise a ‘right’ to literacy- and/or ways to prevent social and economic disadvantage.
We do know how to achieve #100PercentLiteracy.
Extracts from this article have appeared in previously published works on literacy by Connect42 (formerly Chatter Matters Tasmania).
(1.) Based on 2006 ABS Data, figures indicate that almost half of the population in Tasmanian lack the literacy skills needed for everyday life with at least 49% of Tasmanians lacking the literacy skills to read newspapers, books, magazines or brochures, see further; and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2006 (Reissue)
(2.) Margaret Wheatley, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time