Why do so many Australians have poor literacy?
Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - 20:30

We may not be aware of it, but most of us know someone who struggles with reading and writing.

Around 44 per cent of adult Australians have literacy levels that make everyday tasks  - like filling out a form or reading a prescription - very difficult. Sadly, our numeracy levels are worse with over half of Australian adults scoring low on international surveys.

Literacy standards in 21st Century Australia have increased dramatically. Computers and our digital age demand high-level literacy skills, while jobs that may have required minimal reading or writing  now involve extra checks and balances like filling out OH&S reports.

But low literacy goes far beyond simply being able to read and write. Individuals with gaps in literacy are more likely to be vulnerable to social exclusion, and unemployment. Businesses also suffer with 93 per cent of employers reporting low levels of literacy and numeracy were impacting their business.

Yet despite almost one-in-two people having gaps in their literacy skills, this world remains largely hidden to those of us who are lucky enough to be confident in our reading and writing skills.

This week Insight speaks to a number of Australians from all ages and backgrounds who have lived a life with low literacy in a world that assumes that they don’t exist.




Join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter, or posting on our Facebook page.



The Reading Writing Hotline: http://readingwritinghotline.edu.au/

The Reading Writing Hotline is a national service that provides callers with information about literacy and numeracy classes in their local area.


JENNY BROCKIE:   Welcome everyone, good to have you with us tonight. Jack, you've worked for more than forty years? 

JACK:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   In a variety of jobs, how would you describe your reading and your writing? 

JACK: Very poor, not brilliant. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How does it affect you, what sort of things can't you do? 

JACK: Well filling out paperwork, going to an office to fill out an application form, anything to do with CentreLink, government office, Post Office, making out a simple address, can't be done, I have to either copy it down or get someone else to do it for me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What level would your writing be? 

JACK: Um, I reckon a five year old would have better handwriting than me.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Can you read at all? 

JACK: Um, I can read some words but not a great deal. I can't read a page or a newspaper, I have to often ask my friends what does the headline say because I just can't work it out. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Do you know the alphabet? 

JACK: No.  I know that there's, it starts with an A and ends with a Z but don't ask me to quote it to you, I get it confused completely. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How did you get through school with those skills? What year did you leave?

JACK: Fourth year in high school. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So how did you get through school to that age without having those skills? 

JACK: They didn't really worry about us, they let us go outside and play or pick up rubbish or do the gardenings.  We went on lots of school excursions, they didn't really concern that we were out of the teacher's hair.  We were an outcast from every other student there. Even when one of my mates come from the other school would talk to me, their mates would say oh, you're speaking to a dummy, why would you want to speak to a dummy? 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you got, did you get bullied? 

JACK: Oh yes, we got bullied lots of times. On the bus.  In those days my parents didn't understand it much and then when I got home they used to say oh, it's all part of growing up son, you'll have to grow - you'll have to learn to accept that.  But they didn't realise the hits, the abusement, they didn't have no idea of what I was going through, none whatsoever. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did your parents know that you couldn't read and write? 

JACK: Oh, they had than inkling but they didn't understand it.  My brother and sister, they had no problems.  They just couldn't work out why I was behind and I didn't get homework.  They didn't, they didn't comprehend. They went and asked the school but the school didn't push them in the right direction, they weren't bothered with us, we were a problem, they didn't care. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you leave school? 

JACK: Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What's it like for you going out into the workforce trying to find a job without being able to read and write?

JACK: Well I was lucky that my father was working for an engineering company and I ended up starting there only through push and shove from him. The company that I started with, EGL offered my dad to take me on as an apprentice and dad told the boss well no, he can't do it, he doesn't read or write, and that was the end of that. So then I got told to be, they asked me if I wanted to be a driver, go and pick things up all over Sydney and that was a learning curve on its own because I didn't know how to read a street directory so I had to create my own way of reading a street directory and I had to make…

JENNY BROCKIE:   How did you do that? 

JACK: Well, if someone put a street in, I'd have to make sure that the street was in, in letters, not running writing.  If it was in running writing I'd have to go back and ask them to correctly spell this in block letters for me so then I could go to that page and just go through the whole book until I got to the right word and match it all up and then I'd know that the page number was there and then the number and I'd have to just join the two together. People asked me what road you're taking, I couldn't tell them the names of the roads, I just knew how to get there. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you'd see a street sign, it would mean nothing to you? 

JACK: Nothing, nothing, nothing. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So what's your life been like having slipped through the net, not being able to read and write? 

JACK: Well I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, it's been a nightmare. I mean I've had, I've worked, I've been lucky with the employers that I've worked with, I've been open to them and told them that I have a reading problem. Some have been absolutely fantastic.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Cynthia, what about you, what sort of things do you have trouble with? 

CYNTHIA: Filling out forms, the same like that, sometimes - I have a son, sometimes reading his instructions for his homework can be a problem. Mainly filling out forms, like if it's CentreLink or licence form or rego or anything like that, I seem to have trouble with forms like that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What about reading things like the titles of books or…

CYNTHIA: A little bit better now since I have been going to a literacy course but at first I was scared to go to a library, I wouldn't pick up a paper, I just wouldn't bother because it was just too difficult. 

JACK:  Sorry to interrupt you but she's having the same problem as what I'm having with forms. She mentioned CentreLink, that is a nightmare for someone that doesn't read or write. 


JACK: You know how rotten that is to go in there and tell them that I'm unemployed, I need assistance.  They give you a whole heap of paperwork that they expect you to fill it out and if you approach them and say listen, I'm sorry, I don't read or write, can you help? Oh no, get someone else to fill it out. Have you got family?  Go away. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Is that what happened to you too? 

JACK: It's embarrassing, it brings tears to your eyes that there's no one there to help you. Yet I don't know if you have the same problem that I have but I've been standing in line and I'm not having a go at a new Australian, they have the problems probably as I do, they don't know how to fill out the paperwork ..

CYNTHIA: Yeah.  JACK: But they will provide an interpreter to fill out the paperwork for them but nothing for this lady or myself is provided in CentreLink. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Cynthia? 

CYNTHIA:  The other thing too, I was standing in line and they said - I said I need to, a statement or something, well go to the computer. But I can't read and write. Well just go to the computer. I said but I don't know what to fill into the computer. I don't know much about computers. Can you get someone? Well someone can help you. So can you take a seat?  Made me feel, like you said, bad because we couldn't understand it or read and write it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You finished year 12? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   How did you get to year 12 without those skills? 

CYNTHIA: Well with a lot of stress and a lot of pain and a lot of teasing.  Um, in primary school it was the same thing, just left behind, left behind, left behind, and I went to year 10 and they said you haven't got the curriculum to go to year 11 and 12 so I had to repeat year 10 and then I went on to year 11 and 12 because I wanted to finish school. So I did but…

JENNY BROCKIE:   How did you do assignments? 

CYNTHIA: Um, I used to get people at home to help me a little bit.  I had someone, I had friends write it all out, all the mistakes I made so they pretty much had to write the whole thing again and then I'd copy word for word what they wrote down. And just, yeah, I just got teased all the time, um, yeah, just oh she's a dummy. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What was that like? 

CYNTHIA: Oh, it was terrible, I hated it, I hated school. But, and they called me dumb so many times that you actually start to think you are dumb. 

JACK: Yeah. 

CYNTHIA: And I think that's what happened with me, I think that's why I left it so long before I actually did get some help. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did anyone try to help you at school?  Did anyone pick it up and say, you know, let's try and deal with this? 

CYNTHIA: I did a bit of reading classes in primary school just to help me read a little bit better, but like in high school, like he said, you actually just get left behind or pushed aside.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what about at home, what about your parents? 

CYNTHIA:  Yeah, my mother helped me a lot and my sisters but they couldn't always be there to help me at school, people would say to me, I'd ride a bike home and this girl walked past and goes oh, you're riding a bike home?  I didn't think you could read a bike. And because she thought I couldn't read or write she thought I wouldn't be able to do anything like ride a bike or swim because she thought, because I couldn't read and write I was dumb at everything.

JENNY BROCKIE:   That must be pretty soul destroying being told that over and over again at school? 


JACK: Definitely. 

CYNTHIA: Yes it is. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Kye, you're sixteen, you left school two years ago when you were fourteen? 

KYE:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why did you leave school then? 

KYE:  I left school because I was having problems in home and that and like, I didn't like reading and learning that much and that from school. A lot of the teachers like they never used to like help me out or just like leave me aside, or they used to like tell me to like wait or be quiet and just like help the smart kids but the unsmarter kids get like not a lot of teacher matter. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So were you asking for help at school and not getting it? 

KYE:  Yeah, I was asking them all the time like to help me out, to help me out with my work or my tests.

JENNY BROCKIE:   What sort of things were you struggling with what were you finding hard? 

KYE:  I was struggling with my spelling, my reading, my writing and like everything basically to do with school. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you wanted help? 

KYE:  Yeah, I wanted help. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And you wanted to learn? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How, so how were you coping then at school? 

KYE:  Coping wasn't that good because all my friends like they were smarter. I went and asked them for help instead of the teachers.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah, so you were asking them for help as well? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And were they helping you? 

KYE:  Oh, yeah, some of them were, like some of them weren't, like they told me like don't copy it any more, don't like talk to me or anything. It was like I feel like left out and everything. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So what was that like for you?  How did you feel at school? 

KYE:  I felt like I wasn't, that good for me, I felt uncomfortable, like I wasn't, I felt I was unwanted and like just a lot of school's fault because I felt like I wasn't getting taught and they just never bothered me being at school. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did anyone notice that you were struggling? Did anyone offer you any help? 

KYE:  No one really offered me any help because I'm the type of person I like to keep it all in. Like I never really talked to anyone about it but I would try and like ask them for help, but I didn't get any help. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you were trying quietly to get a bit of attention? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   But no one was responding. You were skipping school quite a lot during this time? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why were you skipping school? 

KYE:  I was skipping school because what's the point of being at school when they're not going to like help me.

JENNY BROCKIE:   You were also skipping school though to go home and look after your mum, yeah? 

KYE:  Yeah, yeah, I used to go home and look after my mum and that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why, why did you need to look after your mum? 

KYE:  Because of domestic violence and that, my dad, and I felt like to be at home because I didn't want my mum to get hurt by my dad or anything. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you were going home to protect her? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And tell me a little bit more about the kinds of things that you found really hard to do? 

KYE:  I found it very hard to like spell because they would like get me in front of the class and they would say like how do you spell this and I would try and spell it, then like everyone start laughing because I spelt it wrong and like with my reading, like they told me to read out a paragraph and like I get stuck halfway through and then they never help me.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And you like cooking? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah? Are you a good cook? 

KYE:  Oh, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Tell me, tell me about what it's like trying to, trying to cook sometimes when you have trouble reading and writing? 

KYE:  Like I'm good at my cooking and everything but sometimes I get stuck on recipes or I get stuck on putting half a cup or quarter cup or anything like that I get stuck on it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So it's numbers too, it's numeracy as well? 

KYE:  Yeah, the numbers. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah. Dave. 

DAVE:  Hi. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Hi. How big a problem is literacy in Australia? and when you hear these stories, when you hear Key’s story for example, or some of the other stories we've heard so far, how common are they? 

DAVE:  I think like you started, I think we feel that Australia is a highly educated country, there's literacy shouldn't be a major problem. But the research shows that it is. I mean Australia participates in a big international survey called PEAC, and that shows, for example, in, and there's five levels including a level below level 1 and below level 1 we have 620,000 Australian adults who… 

JENNY BROCKIE:   That's below the bottom level of literacy? 

DAVE:  Well there's a level that's called below level 1 because there were too many people in level 1, so they had to describe a…


DAVE:  Below level 1.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And is that the people who can't read and write at all? 

DAVE:  No, that doesn't even, that's even pre-level 1 is reading some of the texts that people who've been talking here wouldn't be able to probably read and interpret. So it is a pretty significant problem and I think it's a hidden problem and I think that's what we're talking about really, is that we want to bury it as an issue, but the research certainly shows that it's very significant across Australia.

JENNY BROCKIE:   How do you react when you hear a story like Kye's? 

DAVE:  Well, I mean, I mean I started my education career as a secondary school maths teacher, I'll put my hand up and say that, but I started to work with adult literacy and numeracy students in the TAFE system back in the '70's so I've, and that to me was the start of a pathway of what I call enlightenment in the sense of thinking what's going on? I mean, there are just, and they're all normal bright people, they've all been talking about the fact that they see themselves as dumb but they're not dumb and to me the most illuminating thing when I started to work in the adult literacy and numeracy was my God, these people are so capable, so normal, yet they have fallen through the cracks. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And why have they fallen through the cracks? 

DAVE:  Because I think the system is so set in its ways that to change a system to enable us to support all of our learners in the classroom is a really challenging task.

JENNY BROCKIE:   I'd like to just bring it home to people a little bit, we've heard some stories about how hard this is in day-to-day life but you use the example of a children's Panadol packet just to illustrate how difficult it is for people who don't have the skills. 

DAVE:  I've got it here. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, you just happen to have one there? 

DAVE:  That's right. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And just talk us through this, talk us through why a children's Panadol packet, for a person struggling with literacy, is a major problem? 

DAVE:  I mean, I mean to me this is a very everyday, what I call an everyday text that every probably mum and dad will have used at some stage. I certainly did. And you would think therefore the instructions should be simple to read and understand, but even the language and the terminology is really difficult.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Why is that table difficult to somebody with literacy problems? 

DAVE:  Well because, well it's a complex table so you've got the three columns and however many rows there are with a range of age in terms of years.  Then you've got average weight from 10 to 12 kilograms and then you've got the dosage, and so there's a lot of interpretation.  From a maths perspective, from a numeracy perspective to understand those nuances, if you like, of what those numbers mean…

JENNY BROCKIE:   Would you two have trouble with those numbers? 

JACK: Definitely. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Cynthia, would have you trouble? 

CYNTHIA:  I was, because I have a small child, I was always like oh my God, don't want to overdose, go straight to my mother or straight to someone, could you simplify this to me?  I always used to get the lady at the chemist to do a nico mark where how much to dose him, how old he is, so I'm not overdosing my child?  Because to me at first it just was a whole jumble of numbers. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   According to recent figures, our literacy, the literacy of our kids is flatlining, those figures that have just come out? 

DAVE:  Mm-mmm. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why aren't we making progress in this? 

DAVE:   I think it's a complex problem and it's going to take time to invest in improving the education system in order to make a difference. I mean it's the same with our PISA results, which is the international assessment of 15 year olds, we've actually been going down in both reading and literacy for 15 year olds since 2003.  So there certainly is evidence that we're not going in the right direction and I think it's about making education a priority. But it's a long term investment, it isn't something that you can, there's no short term fixes, it's about supporting teachers.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Mark, how was your literacy when you left high school at 16? 

MARK:  Non-existent really.  My literacy was to the point where I couldn't even basically read any words at all. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what was it like for you going through school like that? 

MARK:  Um, I was tried to keep, a very quiet student I think I was trying to be, I didn't want any attention on me because you had this like barrier goes up straight away when you, you know, somebody asks you a question in class and you're like what are they going to ask me?  Does it involve reading? Does it involve any writing?

JENNY BROCKIE:   Was there a time when you realised you were being left behind? 

MARK:  Oh, yeah. I think by the time I got to high school to be honest it was too late for me. My problem started right back, I think I repeated grade 2.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did anyone notice when you were younger?

MARK:  Well some teachers picked it up and you know, talked to my parents about it and my parents, you know, they tried their best to accommodate in trying to help me a bit but it was, they weren't, my parents were getting a lot of information.  Oh, he's doing okay, you know, he could do a bit better. They didn't actually realise the level I was at.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So that must have been pretty lonely as a kid living with that?

MARK:  You live with shame, I would say, I have for many years. It's something you just become accustomed to, you know, I can relate to what the guys are saying here just about going through school, always being, as I said earlier, just being very protective of yourself and making sure there was situations you got into where reading was required, you would try and find an excuse to get out of class.

JENNY BROCKIE:   But were you doing any kind of classes to try to acquire those skills? 

MARK:  Oh, yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   When you were in high school? 

MARK:  They wanted to teach me French and my father went to the school and said well there's not point teaching him French when he doesn't understand English. So, and so I got a lady, he organised this, like he put a lot of pressure on the Education Department and got me organised to have two hours a week of trying to recover, like do extra reading. The lady who had me was a lovely person but she said to my parents it's too, like he's, this should have been picked up when he was in his primary school days, you know, he's come too far.  And again, like the guys were saying, I had a maths teacher who actually just said to me straight one day, he said listen, I know you're slow and he said don't hold back the good students.  He said you just sit there in the back and you just keep quiet, don't say anything. 


MARK:  I said he don't even care if you don't turn up. I think, you know what knocks you down makes you stronger and you know, I'm, these days you know, moving on from school, you know I learnt, I remember sitting in a lady's house, my parents organised this, I was learning the phonetics of the English language, you know, learning, putting two words - A together and just learning how to start the basics. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How old were you when you were doing that? 

MARK: Fifteen and a half when I started doing, like I had to basically, I understood the alphabet but I had to go back and learn and…

JENNY BROCKIE:   Learn those very basic things? 

MARK:  Yeah, basic from there and I went back to school and you know, I've spent seven years now in the system. Adult school you could call it for literacy, for me I can't change the past but I can change the future. That was my theory. Certainly from where I was at fifteen and a half to where I am now, it's changed. But it hasn't been an easy road, it's been a lot of hard work. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did you try to cover it up at school? 

MARK:  I still today try and cover it up. I don't tell anybody. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Well you're telling everybody now? 

MARK:  Yeah, that's going to be interesting when I actually go back to normal life. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what are the things that you've had the most trouble with day-to-day? 

MARK:  Going back in the past, I think writing for instance, like I could write, when I got going I could write but very simple letters, but I want to elaborate more.  I'm in my own respects I try and be a bit of a perfectionist, I want everything to be a 100 percent, like I'll proofread something over and over again because I just don't want to show anybody that I've got a problem. You know, you sort of wonder if you're putting too much pressure on yourself, but when you've had twenty four heads turn around and you're in a classroom and everybody stares at you, it does leave a psychological sort of effect on you and you don't want to show any sign of weakness or you don't want to show anybody, anybody that you've got a problem.

JENNY BROCKIE:    Trina, you also hid your literacy problems for most of your life. How did you hide them at school? 

TRINA:  I turned into a troubled child so I used to get myself in a lot of trouble. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   To deflect attention away from the fact that you were struggling? 

TRINA:  Yes, because I'd ask for help and I just, same scenario, I'd get pushed aside.  So I thought well, instead of me getting picked on, I'll be either the bully and I will start the trouble in the classroom. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did anyone notice that you were falling behind? 

TRINA:  No. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And why do you think that was?  Do you think it was because you were, you were creating a lot of attention by being naughty that they were just focusing on that or…

TRINA:  It could have been that or it just could have been because teachers, even these days like I see with my children, if you have the funding or you don't have the funding, and the teachers don't get the help or they don't get the assistance, or they only get shown a certain way how to teach children where for instance like Di, my tutor, like she'd go over something with me and I'd still look at her blank, like what did you just say? And she'd goes alright, we'll do it this way, so she'll try three different ways until I'd actually get it. So obviously the processing in our brain works differently. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You were expelled from school? 

TRINA:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   In year 9, why were you expelled? 

TRINA:  Because the teachers pretty much had enough of my behaviour. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And how would you describe your behaviour at that stage? 

TRINA:  At school. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   While you were struggling with all this stuff? 

TRINA:  Out of control. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   In what sort of ways. I'm only asking you because it might make people think about some of the out of control kids that they come across. 

TRINA:  Um, I turned to drugs and alcohol. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   At what, what age, how young? 

TRINA:  At thirteen. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How did you manage to get a job without literacy skills? 

TRINA:  Pretty easy when you become a bar wench, you've got only to pour drinks. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what other jobs did you have? 

TRINA:  Worked in the mining industry, driving machinery. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What couldn't you do at work that you needed to do in some of those jobs? 

TRINA:  Fill in forms.  In the mines for instance we had to fill out take fives, so you have to write out before you hop on your truck or how to you rectify an incident before it even happens?

JENNY BROCKIE:   So what would you do when you had to do that, how would you handle that? 

TRINA:  Well I got away with it for a while because my drink bottle always spilt on it for some reason. I don't know how but it did. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So how do you think your life might have been different if you'd had those skills? 

TRINA:  Oh, would have been dramatically different. I would have been able to finish school, you know, I could have been a doctor or something you know, I don't know. But I know I probably would have been someone a lot better and confident in myself and talking to people and you know, instead of hiding how to spell something from somebody because that's the most embarrassing. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Mark, what about the broader impact all of this has had on your life? 

MARK:  Well, I always say to myself every morning I wake up, you know, I have a job and I'm grateful for that. But having a literacy problem when I was younger, you know, the world might have about completely different for me, you know.  It most probably would have about, I could have had a career, lots of things would have been different. So.. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What would you have liked to do? 

MARK:  Who knows? Listening to customer service, sales, who knows, flying an aeroplane would have been brilliant. No, but it certainly would have been a different world. You know, as I say I'm grateful to have a job but you certainly, for myself, I go to work every day and I just feel that I'm a failure and I say that every day because…

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why do you feel like a failure though? Why do you take that on board as something that's your fault in some way? 

MARK:  Maybe I see a little bit of success my, my family's had or my father's done or my brother's done but I just feel in myself that life could have been a lot better, you know, in respects of work.

JENNY BROCKIE:   What do you do now? 

MARK:  Like all I do is I work in a distribution centre driving a fork lift and I feel like a robot every day.  I've always lived a life of that sort of fear where I'm just a bit reserved to take that leap of faith. I'm just always paranoid that somebody's going to find out and have a go at you.  And I know now being an adult it might not be the case but you sort of live with that, that stigma, and it's, you try and get rid of it and you know, I've improved a lot but I still have that sort of fear in me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Chris, you arrived in Australia when you sixteen with little Greek literacy, not very much? 

CHRIS:  Not very much. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And no English either when you were arrived? 

CHRIS:  No, no. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What's your reading and writing like now? 

CHRIS:  I been to Greek school for seven years but my…

JENNY BROCKIE:   In Greek before you came? 

CHRIS:  Yeah, back, yeah, but when I come in here 1960's I be straight away to seven days work and I blame myself now and I never forgiven myself because I have to back to school. I wanted to go now but I'm very shy my age. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How old are you?  Do you mind telling me? 

CHRIS:  76. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, and you'd like to go back, it's never too late to go back to school. 

CHRIS:  I like to go back. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Never too late.

CHRIS:  Never too late, yeah. I blame myself very, very much. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why do you blame yourself? 

CHRIS:  Because I have to go to school. Because I been a very good mathematics and history and everything, but I work seven days all my life, 56 years I work and very hard to find time. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you came here as a migrant from Greece? 

CHRIS:  Yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE:   How many businesses have you run over the years? 

CHRIS:  My business? 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How many businesses? 

CHRIS:  I have a lot business, I have first my first shop 1963, I have two shops in Liverpool, ‘Ponta Rose Milk Bar’ my first business and after Macquarie Street, Liverpool ‘Chris Take Away’, and after ‘Lilli Pilli Gumtree’ and ‘St Maurice’, William Street two shops, ‘St Maurice’ and ‘Angelique's’, and I have backyard my city grind and Viva three shops, Viva 1, Viva 2 and Viva 3 and I'm still working. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Now how did you run, you ran those businesses with your late husband? 

CHRIS:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   A lot of them? 

CHRIS:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How did you manage without basic literacy skills, without reading? 

CHRIS:  Very easy, I have very good staff and very good people. Australian people the best to me. Australia is my country, I spend three quarters to my life this lucky clever country. My staff and my children after they grown up but I never have a problem. That's a bigger problem because the people spoil me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   People spoilt you, so that was your problem? 

CHRIS:  That's the biggest problem because I find it hard to work, you know, people helped me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Who helped you? Who helped you with those issues? 

CHRIS:  The staff, my children for start and second the staff they spoil me. What I do for you mama, I do for you mama and they spoil me rotten, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Have you ever tried to hide the fact that you can't read and write very well? 

CHRIS:  No, not shamed.  Sometimes I find it very hard to write down I say to people I need help.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, now these days you work part time in your daughter and your son's coffee shop. Let's have a look. 




CUSTOMER:  Soy latte and a Chia latte and can I also grab some scrambled eggs?

CHRIS: Tony, you do the scrambled eggs for me please.

I write down but not too much things because some things I find very hard for people to understand. Customer who knows the staff here and customer knows me.  English Breakfast Tea…

MAN: Is red, Peppermint Tea is green and Lemon and Ginger is yellow colour.

CHRIS:  Because I getting used to the things, you know…I know that is English Breakfast. The regular customers, they see it’s busy, it’s flat out in the morning and they ask how much cost and I say that much.  And would you like to do the card for me please.


JENNY BROCKIE:   So you found all sorts of ways to get around this? 

CHRIS:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And who did you ask for help?  The delivery drivers would help you with things, yeah? 

CHRIS:  To write the cheque. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   The delivery drivers would write your cheques? 

CHRIS:  Yeah. I look how much, I check the things and I say that cheque book, you write down the cheque and I sign it, that’s it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Did you ever worry about being taken advantage of? 

CHRIS:  No, because I see how much I sign, and I sign alright, here's the cheque book and I see how much they write down. I never have a problem. 


JACK: I did. Someone's driving out there with a brand new car and it's not in my name. But yeah, I'm paying for it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you had people take advantage of you? 

JACK: Oh yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Of your lack of skills by getting you to sign things? 

JACK: Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Like loans? 

JACK:  Loans, credit cards, you name it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And were these people friends of yours? 

JACK: They were people that I was living with, you know, you had to tell them after a while they were aware of it. The lease would come up for a flat or a house, oh, we have to renew the lease.  Jack, oh, okay, so your name's on it so before you knew it you were signing a document that you didn't even realise it was a credit card or a loan to a car. I had a person take out a mobile phone in his name, run up a bill to $1,500.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what, he'd gotten you to sign something? 

JACK: No, no, he just rang up because he was staying at my house and he knew, he was filling out paperwork for me so I knew my birth date, he knew the company I was working for so he rang up Telecom. They approved it over the phone and he went down and picked up the phone from the post office in my name. 



NARELLE:  There's nothing in the town for young kids, you know. They're just roaming the streets and making trouble. I'm glad the program come to town 'cause I wouldn't have got my Ls or nothing. I couldn't understand all the questions, when they asks questions for your Ls, like big words I didn't understand and I just kept asking and I learnt. So I'm very glad the class is there.

Couldn't read very well, wasn't a very good speller. Still not - that's why I'm gonna do more classes I didn't really think much of it at first. But when I started coming, I like it. I like students, I like the fun, we have laughs in our class, and very funny class, our class.

My son was going but he got locked up and I was proud of him for going, you know.

JANELLE: First question, can kids take it?

REPORTER:  What's Janelle like as a teacher?

NARELLE:  Janelle is a good person. And I'm very proud of Janelle, she done a lot for herself too. You know, we're all alcoholics, hanging round the street.

REPORTER: What would you like to do once the course is done?

NARELLE:  I want to move out of town. Get my licence first and move. I'll go and get a job.

REPORTER:  What kind of job would you like?

NARELLE: Cleaning. Helping little kids. Baby kids. That was my dream when I was young, helping those elderly people and little kids. But I want to go and I want to learn. I don't care about anyone else. I will do it myself. I'm No. 1 I look after myself. Yep. But if you're there watching, join the program!


JENNY BROCKIE:   Jack, you started that program, Literacy for Life program in Brewarrina, why? 

JACK B: Oh, I was monitoring and evaluating this program or this campaign model up in East Timor and when I came back to live in Australia we piloted the program in 2012 at Wilcannia and then we've continued on and proudly now it's at my home town.  I come from Brewarrina, that's my father's country, and we wanted to pilot a model where the community does the work themselves.

So what makes this work is not so much I guess the model itself or the curriculum, but the fact is that it calls on the community to actually undertake responsibility and put their skin in the game and for me the underlying thing around literacy, and we've had a lot of talks about that here tonight, is that you won't get literate children unless you have literate mothers, it really boils down to that. It's great having a literate father but it's even greater having a literate mother.

But our kids, Aboriginal kids bring drugs into school now, kicking and screaming under a federal government program, but their mothers and fathers are left behind. You know, so none of what they learn at school can be reinforced at home so it's a non-sustainable learning process. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How much of a need is there for it in Brewarrina, what are the levels of literacy? 

JACK B: It's enormous. In the Aboriginal community literacy, low literacy levels at a minimum of 40 percent and in some communities up to 80 percent.  So if you look at the anecdotal evidence it's around about 65 percent of Aboriginal people nationally have low literacy. Now that needs to be addressed.   The government is talking about a gap. Aboriginal people are talking about a crater that superman can't jump over. You know, you will close nothing unless you actually address the issue of literacy. 

But can I just say one thing on this because I've been listening here tonight and you hear the word shame come up a lot. And the shame, that shame belongs to us that can read and write. We're the ones that should sit in shame that we've allowed this to happen.

JENNY BROCKIE:   We saw Narelle in that tape piece looking very cheery indeed about the course. What effects can it have and is it having in your community? 

JACK B: It's having an extraordinary effect.  People are now getting licences, for example, so in a town like Brewarrina or Burke, Aboriginal people that attend Court, 80 percent of the time are attending for a driving offence and usually that's for not having a licence. So they can get a licence for a start so it makes an immediate difference. People's health's improving, doctors have come to us and said not just the people that are in your, in the course or doing the classes, but their whole families' health is improving. Children are attending school far more often than what they were before. All these things are positive outcomes of parents and brothers and sisters learning to read and write. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Rosie, what impact does a parent's language have on a child?

ROSIE:  It has an enormous impact. So when parents are able to share language with their children, that's how language obviously is passed on to their children and the richness that they can bring when they're reading to their children is one of the power factors that expands children's vocabularies up until age 4 and beyond. So up to grade 3 they're learning to read but from grade 3 on, they're reading to learn, so then they're able to become independent because they've got the tools there's been a little bit of talk about it never being too late. I would really, really emphasise that it's not too late.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Jade, you work on a lettuce farm in Tasmania, at a state with the lowest literacy levels in the country.  Your employer organised literacy classes for you.  What was your literacy like before those classes? 

JADE:   I wasn't the best, I had no grammar at all. Didn't know when to double up letters and when not to. Just basic really, reading and writing was just stay away from it, try not to do it at all.

JENNY BROCKIE:   So what have you learnt? 

JADE:  In my classes, I started off learning to speak in public because I hold a team meeting every morning. So that was one of the first things I had to do.  Being able to read what was written on the whiteboard from the other guys and being able to explain what was happening as well. And now I'm also learning how to write emails in the business as a business straightforward email plan talk and being able to read and write on at SOPs as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And how long have you been doing, studying the course? 

JADE:  I've been on the course now for two years, a year. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah, Tony, you helped get it off the ground, this is a small family owned business? 

TONY:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Backing this program? 

TONY:  Yes it is, and we're really fortunate in Tassie we've got a fantastic literacy program called 26Ten and the State Government actually provides some funding support that's allowed us to bring in two specialist literacy and numeracy people to support our people in the business. We know in Tassie that we've got about 48 percent of adults that are functionally illiterate and we employ about 240 people. So it's going to be a fair whack of our workforce that actually we're asking people to do things that they had no, no ability to actually do and translate into outcomes.

JENNY BROCKIE:   You've had a couple of promotions too, I hear, Jade?

JADE:  Yeah, I was just an operator or an operator on the bagging line, I'm now right up as an acting front line leader so I've been team leader as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Trina, what prompted you to get help?

TRINA:  My children. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What happened? 

TRINA:  Well my fiancée works in the mines so Amelia when she came home with, she was in pre-primary, she's in year 2 now, and I was like have you got your homework and she's like yes and I was like what is it and she's like I don't know.  So I sit down and I'm like oh, yeah, she goes what, don't you know either?  And I was like oh no, that's a tricky one. And then after a while just I was getting a little bit disheartened when Amelia would turn around and say don't worry mum, we'll just call dad, just ask dad for help. And I'm like but I don't want to ask dad for help any more, like I need to stand on my own two feet. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So this goes back to the point about we need mothers to be literate? 

TRINA:  Yeah, it's totally true because you know, my mother wasn't much of a role model or anything along those lines and she didn't care about my education.  Like even though that you learn in school, you have to bring it home and you have to do things at home too.

JENNY BROCKIE:   You did a different program, you did a program called Read Write Now.  What can you do now that you couldn't do before having done that program? 

TRINA:  Well, lots of things. I'm a lot more confident in myself. I also started doing the school banking, so the school banking coordinator at my children's school, done that for over a year now and also just recently opened up my own business. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How have your kids reacted to that change in you? 

TRINA:  Amelia at the start, she's like oh, mum you're getting better at reading and I was like oh, gee, thanks. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How old is she? 

TRINA:  Seven.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Cynthia, what prompted you to get help? 

CYNTHIA:  My son. He's, he's eight now and he is a very, very clever little boy. He has, from my perspective to me to him, he can read better than me, I didn't want him to think that, you know, I couldn't help him with his homework.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And how's it going now since you've been getting help?

CYNTHIA: It's a lot better. son's homework?  It makes me have a bit of pride in myself too to know I can help him, instead of oh, God someone else help you, I don't know how to do it and it's like it's a good thing I can actually help him now.

JENNY BROCKIE:   What about you Kye? 

KYE:  Ever since I started going back to school, like where I'm going now, like they've helped me learn more, like my spelling's gotten better, my maths has gotten better and like we cook at school and like I learn how to like cook better foods.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And how's it going, how are you feeling about in a school environment given what a bad time you had before? 

KYE:  Yeah, like I'm feeling I'm learning much better now and I'm learning way much more stuff at like this school now. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And how does mum feel about it? 

KYE:  Oh, yeah, she like, she like loves that I'm going to school and not worrying with her at home.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And the situation at home has changed? 

KYE:  Yeah, it's changed now ever since my dad left and things have gotten better. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Mark, you've been working on your literacy for quite a few years now.  What motivated you to finally do something about it? 

MARK:  I think now in this technological world we live in we're actually speaking less and typing more, so be it email or text message or whatever we need English. And I knew myself that if I don't get on top of this, it's going to get on top of me in some respects.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And was it easy for you to get help? 

MARK:  Local TAFE at the start was quite good and, as I said, it's been five years there and I then left there and I completed another TAFE course.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what's your literacy like now? 

MARK:  My spelling, my reading and my writing is, it's a lot better.  Obviously it's a lot better but when I first started, as I say, fifteen and a half I could not even put two words together. Now I'm writing, I'm an occupational, health and safety rep at work, I do reports, I have to read the occupational, health and safety book, legislation, you know, so I need it and I push myself very hard to make sure I can. So it's not bad, it's hard for me to judge, I'd have to get an expert from the panel to judge how… 

JENNY BROCKIE:   That sounds pretty good though. 

DAVE:  Pretty good. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Dave, it sounds like there are a wealth of programs around, are there?

DAVE:  I think we have a history of knowing what to do but we don't have the programs available that we once did. So I actually think we've gone backwards in terms of the sorts of programs that are now available. So I think we know what to do but I don't think the support and funding for people to go to classes is as readily available as it should be. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Jack, who funds your program? 

JACK B: Oh, it's a multitude of people but it's partly funded by Brookfield Multiplex which is a global construction company. Other parts of it are funded by the government and other parts are funded by other philanthropical organisations. But my fear with all of this and it's getting worse and worse, is that people are just becoming further marginalised in the process. How often have we said to people just text me.  Because they've got a phone, we assume they can text you. In my community 65 percent of the people you say that to won't be able to text you. They're the mistakes I make even working in the area. So you know, the marginalised in Australia are becoming further marginalised through this technological invasion really. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Jack, you've found it hard to get help, why? 

JACK: There was no one around that wanted to help me at the time. I depended on friends.  I'm lucky that I've got two close friends or three close friends now that I can give them something for me to read and to fill out the paperwork for me and not have a problem.   

JENNY BROCKIE:  Technology has helped you a lot with this? 

JACK: Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Let's have a look. 




JACK: Good morning Siri!

SIRI: Good morning!

JACK: Jacob. It says Jacob. Siri has come along and opened up a whole new world. I mean, you know, I can get somebody that I want and get it to read to me.

SIRI:  Hey, it's Jason. Don't forget to walk the dogs today. Thanks, Jack.

JACK:  I can get it to say things for me. I haven't forgotten. All my working life, you know, I never read nothing. If I had Siri when I was driving trucks, life would've been much easier for me.

300 Gardiners Road Rosebery. The only reason I know that this is Ebsen Rd or McEvoy Street is because of the McDonald's on the corner. Back in the old day, I had to pull up and find somewhere like Gardiners Road and count on the book how many lights there was before I had to make a turn.

SIRI:  In 1km, your destination is on your left.

JACK:  Ha ha! I ended up in lots of places by the time I rang someone up, I had gone past by three or four suburbs.

SIRI:  Your destination is on your left. 300 Gardiners Road.


JENNY BROCKIE:   Where would you be without Suri? 

JACK: I'd be lost. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Can you see a way that your literacy could get better now? 

JACK: If there was classes in Sydney where they strictly dealt with people in the same, like my problem and Mark and everybody here, where we have trouble reading and writing.  It's not going to work when we're trying to get people to learning English and read at the same time, the two are not the same.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Kye, what do you see for your future now? 

KYE:  When I like get older I want to join the army or I want to follow the hospitality path. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Be a chef? 

KYE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So how are you feeling about your prospects now for that? 

KYE:  I'm feeling really good about it. It's something that I want to do and I want to like try to reach my goal to do it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Mark, you haven't spoken about this openly before? 

MARK:  No. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Who knows? 

MARK:  Before tonight? My brother, my wife and my parents, that's it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Why did you decide to talk about it this way, for people to find out this way? 

MARK:  Well, it's, I go to class and I see so many people come and their stories, the way they are, and the emotional side I can relate to it. You know, I've seen people come who are just to the point of just depression. It's destroyed their lives and I wanted just to come here and say to people there is a still light after you leave school. It's like our young man, he's got a bright future in front of him and you know, you've got to the apply yourself.  But I just want to share with people out there that you know, life can go on and you can make something of yourself and that's for me the message I want to send tonight.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Kye, why did you want to come on television tonight to talk about this? 

KYE:  I want to like tell everyone about like why I fell behind and like now I'm getting better because like I want to like, tell everyone but don't be embarrassed and like come forward about how you're feeling. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Thank you all so much for joining us tonight, it's been a fascinating discussion and that is all we have time for here but let's keep talking on Twitter and on Facebook.