Adult Literacy and Learning

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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Saying that further education is the key to career progression and personal fulfillment is all well and good, but it assumes that everyone is fortunate enough to have the basic literacy skills to avail of further learning opportunities – something that is not always the case.

In fact it is very often not the case. According to the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA), approximately 25 per cent of Irish adults have difficulty reading, writing and doing basic maths. The figure seems inordinately high compared to the illiteracy rates of Sweden (3 per cent) and Germany (5 per cent).

Illiteracy issues

The reasons behind such sizeable discrepancies are uncertain. What is certain, however, is that poor literacy skills greatly inhibit one’s opportunities: those who cannot read or write are much more likely to be unemployed, and far less likely to be involved in any kind of educational training.

NALA suggests that there are around 500,000 Irish adults are at a such a low level of literacy that they may struggle to read the instructions on medical products they are using; have difficulty dealing with forms, official documentation and new technologies; and be unable to assist the development of literacy skills in their children, thereby potentially bequeathing the problem to the next generation.

Find a solution

It therefore stands to reason that the issue should be prioritised in the context of all new further education and training structures and systems – something that NALA has recently commented on in relation to SOLAS, the new education and training authority:

‘SOLAS should develop further education and training in a way that redresses the Matthew effect, whereby people who need the most assistance are the least likely to be assisted. Promoting equality of opportunity for all groups would ensure the optimum impact of public funding and tackle educational disadvantage. This would be more inclusive of priority groups, including those with literacy difficulties, low or no qualifications, early school leavers, as well as the most vulnerable or hard to serve unemployed.’

It also suggests that SOLAS be required to consult with the beneficiaries of further education and training – namely, students – when developing its strategies.

‘There are many barriers to returning to learning for people with literacy and numeracy difficulties, including the stigma attached to the issue and time constraints of attending classes’, said NALA’s National Co-ordinator John Stewart. ‘We organise awareness campaigns to break down these barriers and help make it easier for people to take up learning opportunities by providing a distance education service.’

The chances are that many readers will know of someone whose life may be greatly improved through learning to read and write.

Frank Bolger

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