Illiteracy in UK More than a million adult Britons have a standard of literacy no better than that of a seven-year-old. For them, reading road signs, writing their names or understanding instructions on pill bottles is a hardship. Anuskha Asthana reports on how beating illiteracy can cut poverty and restore dignity
By the time he was 32 and had hung up his boots, Scott Quinnell had played rugby union for Llanelli 146 times, captained Wales, gained 52 caps and scored 11 international tries. He had even been chosen to play for the British Lions in Australia in 2001.
Yet on the day that he decided to retire, Quinnell – an undisputed Welsh hero – still only had the reading age of a seven-year-old. His writing and spelling were also poor, meaning that his wife had to fill in cheques for him. On more than one occasion fans threw autographs back in anger.
When the sports star decided to tackle the first book in the Harry Potter series, in his late twenties, it took him two months to complete the 223 pages.This week Quinnell will become one of the leading figures of a major campaign aimed at helping the millions of adults in Britain who are barely literate to read for pleasure. He will tell his story in a book that he wrote himself after being treated for severe dyslexia. .The campaign comes as new research reveals that teaching the country’s illiterate parents to read will transform the futures of millions of children.
It was Quinnell’s two children, Lucy, 11, and Steele, nine, who were also dyslexic, that made him want to change his life. ‘I did not want them to go through the same experiences as me, going to their bedroom at night and crying because they were different to everyone else,’ he said. ‘I struggled at school – it was a frustrating time. If you are called lazy and stupid often enough you start to believe it. I was lucky I had sport. I found out I was dyslexic when I was 21, but I did not do anything. I just kept playing.’
Not so for millions of others. There are 1.1 million adults in England with a reading age lower than that of a typical seven-year-old.
For them, reading road signs, taking in the instructions on a medicine bottle or simply writing their name is a hardship. Many try to hide their lack of ability, even from partners or children, often claiming to have forgotten non-existent glasses. When those whose literacy is so poor they could not keep up with an average 11-year-old are taken into account, the number rises to 5.2 million, or almost one in six of all 16- to 65-year-olds. The figures are also high in Wales and Scotland. Others are more sceptical about efforts being made in schools. ‘People who do not learn the basics end up doing the same thing over and over again,’ said Dr Bethan Marshall, an academic at King’s College London.
‘They are taught in exactly the same way again. Then they are identified as the children who are failing,’ she added. ‘Increasingly children are set by ability, and these children are always in the bottom set because they cannot read or write. They might be good at some things but because of that they are cast as irredeemably stupid.’
For her fellow author, Quinnell, reading was something he never even tried until his late 20s, and when he did ‘my eyes would get tired and I would miss paragraphs’, he said. Things have changed dramatically. When the rugby star decided to try Harry Potter again, he finished the last one in the series – which has 607 pages .