--- The three-part series Lost for Words premieres at 8:30pm on Wednesday 22 September on SBS and SBS On Demand ---
Imagine trying to follow a recipe when the words and numbers just don’t make sense. Shopping for ingredients when you can’t read the names on packets and bags and boxes. Or ordering from a cafe when you can’t read the menu.
For Australians with literacy issues, these are very real problems – and just one facet of the nation’s staggeringly low adult literacy rate. It’s estimated that around 43 per cent of Australian adults don’t have the necessary literacy skills needed for the basics of everyday life, from shopping to navigating public transport or applying for a job.
As the heartwarming new SBS documentary series Lost for Words shows, there can be many reasons why people struggle to read and write. And more importantly, there’s hope.
Hosted by literacy advocate Jay Laga’aia, this three-part series follows a small group of brave Australians as they join an intensive nine-week adult literacy program. And along with classroom lessons, there are hands-on activities, including a cooking lesson with chef Mark Olive.
“Cooking is just one of the hardest things in the world for me. But cooking with Mark was just amazing,” says IT support worker Shelle, one of eight participants in the program. “He was so friendly. He was just so warm … and he seemed to sense when I was having trouble and he'd just pop over with a word of encouragement or just help me understand. It helped so much.”
Before their cooking lesson, the participants are given a list of ingredients to buy ahead of their cooking lesson. Watching them attempt to write shopping lists and then find everything they need in a supermarket is a confronting reminder of how hard everyday life can be when words don’t work.
But it also shows there’s a way forward. Each of the participants sets a personal goal at the start of the show. For arborist Mike, it’s to be able to read a menu and order a meal for his partner; for mother of two Makere, it’s to read books to her daughter and son; Lamine, who speaks four languages but struggles with reading, wants to get his driver’s licence, while Shelle dreams of writing a book.
As the show progresses, the group dives into an intense mixture of classroom lessons with teachers Jo Medlin and Adam Nobilia, and a series of practical exercises. They attempt to follow a set of written clues and navigate their way across Sydney on public transport to meet Laga’aia for lunch; there’s a confidence-building group session at NIDA with Australian actor and director Marcus Graham; and that cooking lesson with Mark Olive, where they make his kangaroo pie and chocolate damper (a version of this recipe that Olive shared on The Cook Up With Adam Liaw).
“Cooking is something you often find in an adult literacy class,” says Jo Medlin, the President of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy, “One of the differences between child literacy and adult literacy is that adult literacy needs to be about something that's real and authentic in your everyday life and food, shopping, cooking, we all need food. It’s really vital.”
And, she says, there’s more than just cooking a meal at stake. “Food is about health literacy as well…. if you've got to have a particular diet, or you should be cutting down on salt or sugar or something, to be able to address that if you can't read all the ingredients, becomes increasingly difficult. And it's the same with other types of reading. You know, in that shopping challenge, if they had been going to buy some medicine - you've got to be able to read that accurately.”
Leanne Foreman, who runs the Easy Read recipe website, is another who’s seen the difference being able to navigate a recipe can make. “I have always loved to cook but I was always frustrated with how I had to keep going back and forth between the ingredients and method in a traditional recipe… My brain needed a more logical, one-directional process. So, I developed a different way of writing down a recipe.
“Then when I had children with neurological diversities, I really needed to save time and reduce stress in the kitchen … and my easier recipe format helped.
“As the kids got older, I decided to refine my recipe format to make it more inclusive. I wanted my kids to be able to more easily follow a recipe too. I used my existing knowledge and skills in Home Economics teaching and computer programming to make my unique format, even more, user friendly and logical. Then I researched how to make it more reader-friendly for a wider audience, especially for those with ADHD and dyslexia.
“The main difference over the traditional method is that it is one-directional instead of back and forth between the ingredients and method. Once you have completed a step, you never have to look back. Bolding of the action verbs, using colour to highlight the ingredients, using easier-to-read fonts, colours and font sizes, all help to make the recipe more reader-friendly,” Foreman explains to SBS, with this same format being used in several e-books she’s published.
Medlin says literacy is a hidden epidemic – but she hopes Lost for Words will help make it easier for people to talk about their literacy challenges. “I really hope that the show helps people talk about this in a way that kind of removes that stigma around it. It's a hidden issue, and I think that's why people are surprised when they see those statistics… my hope is that people will see it and go 'oh, that's like me, you know, it's not a big deal, I can go and get some help'. I would like to think it will open up that kind of access for people.”
There’s clearly a team spirit in the series, with all the participants helping each other.
“Whenever we had problems, either in a team exercise or during the classroom if for any reason we couldn't get a teacher, there wasn't any stigma to going and asking someone else for help,” says Shelle. "It was you know, twist around a chair or wander up to someone in the supermarket or when we were cooking in the kitchen, and saying, 'Can you help me?', and it was just instant, 'Yeah sure, you know, I'm having trouble too'.
“I'd never had that before, so it was really heart-warming.”
Shelle deals with both dyslexia and the numbers equivalent, dyscalculia, making cooking doubly difficult. “Before I can actually get to the cooking, I’ve got to get past the recipe. I’ll start it, and my brain just skips things.”
Medlin says there are many reasons why someone might have literacy challenges, and the important thing is not whether there’s a label for the situation but knowing that there is a way forward. “The reasons are so diverse, and they could be anything from some disrupted learning, you know, something that happened when you're in school; it could be since then, perhaps you just haven't been reading and writing a lot, so you've lost some of those skills and need a bit of a refresher… and the demands of literacy change all the time, too.
“I hope that what came across in the show was that in a sense, the reason doesn’t matter to any of the adults in the show or any of the adults we work with, because it's all about going forward from here.”
If you or someone you know needs help with reading, writing or basic maths, Medlin says a great place to start is the Reading Writing Hotline (1300 6 555 06), a free national referral service for adults, which provides information on courses, tutors and resources.
“And I think it's important to know that Adam and I, just like every other literacy teacher, we don't judge, and that if you do come forward to get assistance, you're not going be treated like you are the problem. We realise that literacy is the barrier, and there's a whole lot of different reasons around why that is,” she says.
Shelle says Lost for Words has made a big difference in her life.
“I loved it so much, I'm so grateful to have been on it. The teachers and my classmates, they're all amazing people and I'm just so blessed to have met them, and Jay, he was amazing.
“I've still got a lot of work to go because it was only a nine-week program, but it's put me on a good path, a good solid path to help me with understanding the written world.” And she's working on that book, too.