A few years ago when I was at home full-time with a toddler, the toddler and I took a trip down to a local river. One of my daughter’s favourite pastimes was throwing pebbles into the water. So I sat with her, in a fairly remote part of town, when an old man approached.

Although he’s standing a good distance away, I can smell the fumes coming off him. He says hello and I say a tentative hello back, and it soon becomes apparent that this old alcoholic is starved of company. I don’t meet many people like him on a day to day basis. We started to chat about the weather, and eventually, over the course of about an hour, I learned a lot about this old man’s life.

  • I learned that the thing you get most sick of in an Australian prison is wholemeal bread.
  • I learned that prison is not necessarily the correctional facility we hope it to be. This old man continues to drive along the highway into town, and as of our riverside meeting, if he gets caught one more time he’ll be straight back to prison, because his body is permanently full of alcohol. (This is who we share our roads with.)
  • I learned at the time of our parting that if he didn’t get some more alcohol into himself soonish, his shaking was going to get worse.
  • I learned that he couldn’t read. He told me it was ‘a family thing’, because none of his offspring could read either. He was not on speaking terms with his son, also in prison.

Last month Neil Gaiman delivered a speech about the importance of libraries, which branched into the general importance of reading, in which he pointed out the direct link between prisoners and levels of literacy. My own layperson’s impression of prison is that prison is a place where we plonk our drug-dependent and mentally ill, for lack of a better-evolved system, but the literacy link is huge.

[Gaiman] mentions the alarming growth of the private prison industry in the United States, and the connection between illiteracy and prison populations. What was most startling about him relating this anecdote is that I learned there is now an algorithm used to determine future prison needs…using the percentage of 10 and 11 year olds that can’t read. Scary, but true. You can read more about it here.

Neil Gaiman Is Right.

As always, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, but it makes intuitive sense that an inability to read leads to a very real disenfranchisement for those who slip through the literacy cracks. Next year our little pebble-throwing girl starts school, so this week I have been listening to seminars on the latest literacy NSW program: L3. This is a new program, and literacy programs do come and go, but judging by the results of this one, L3 sounds absolutely fantastic. This was a program originally designed for ESOL students, which proved so successful that it is now being used in NSW kinder classes regardless of English speaking background. I have friends tell me they’ve been amazed at how well their children have learnt to read on this program.

Our data reflects children acquiring and applying skills 4-6 months quicker than we have seen utilising other classroom delivery methods relating to Literacy.

from another L3 school.

So don’t let anyone tell you that education is stuck in the dark ages. It’s sometimes easy to forget how it was for the huge number of functionally illiterate Australian adults who have slipped through the cracks, thinking there is something wrong with them and their families rather than something wrong with the imperfect system into which they were born.