NALA: Conquering Adult Illiteracy in Ireland

Lucia’s tears last week and spunky Kuku’s comment today (as he tried to distract me from the fact he wasn’t doing his work with tangents about Willy Wonka and American traditions) that went “I know I have to do homework, but it’s just so boring and stupid,” left me worrying about the  possibility of these kids becoming adults who avoid reading at all costs. I thought about the parents of many of the children in the club–hard working and responsible adults struggling to conceal illiteracy. They might be out of practice, have left school early in order to become breadwinners, or slid through the cracks of a school system that failed to meet their individual learning needs. They are unable to help their children who come home with sheets of maths problems and sentences to write (in English and Irish.) They are likely ashamed and frustrated–living their lives in constant aversion of written words. In the most severe cases, adults are unable to read medical prescriptions or safety signs. Through illiteracy, they lose a sense of control.

According to Ireland’s National Adult Literacy Agency(NALA,) nearly 1 in 4 Irish adults has problems reading or writing. The 30-year old organization aims to raise awareness about this important issue– implementing “a nationwide awareness raising campaign on adult literacy services, new teaching methods, policy on good adult literacy work and organised events for adult literacy students and volunteer tutors.”They have three main objectives:

  • Policy- National Adult Literacy programs sponsored and supported by the state
  • Practice- Developing programs with integrated learning approaches
  • Access- Convenient and easy access to services (without the stigma)

Reading through NALA’s evidence based research, positive results, and view of their program as a “social movement,” I was impressed with how holistic their approach is. Understanding the widespread causes of adult illiteracy and the boundaries built by society that prolong them, NALA works with an eye toward systems change. They recognize (refreshingly) that adult literacy must be defined and taught much differently than child literacy. In their program, adult literacy is defined;

Adult learning is a very different experience to school. Adult learning is all about addressing the needs of the learner, working at a pace that suits them and mapping out a learning path that fits in with their life and interests. The important thing to remember is that it is never too late to return to learning and the benefits are well worth it.

Working to build confidence in adults, encourage the government, schools, tutors, teachers and community to support adult literacy needs, and offering programs both online and by phone in order to offer services conveniently and discreetly to adults, NALA seems to think of everything.

The subject of adult illiteracy is often an emotional one. It is never taken lightly, and has been overlooked for decades–justified with the assumption that those who cannot read do not want to and do not need to. They are the ones who work with their hands and raise children to do the same. This is not a fair assumption or necessarily an ethical one. Is literacy a right as NALA claims? At first I believed this made perfect sense. Everyone deserves the opportunity to be able to read. It is necessary to function fully in society. But still, we might wonder about the choice to be illiterate. The phrase sounds strange, but it has some truth. There are adults who do not wish to be literate (or at least they claim it has no purpose.) I think of a recent clip I witnessed on the show “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”–a reality TV version of a documentary about the Traveller community in the UK. One father, clad in a white cotton tank top, declared the lessons of school useless. He had deliberately pulled his children out of the school system at age 12–declaring that they learned more working in the family business than sitting in a classroom all day. How might we interpret this choice? Should we honor it, or demand that the child be part of a system that will (or should) ensure that she or he will not meet the same illiterate fate of their parents? Where do we draw the line?

The services of NALA are currently voluntary. They exist for adults who identify with a national campaign and actively seek out the opportunity to re-learn what has been lost or never taught. Will there come a time when they are mandatory? Or will they be deemed unnecessary when the next generations are not allowed to slip through the cracks?

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3 Responses to NALA: Conquering Adult Illiteracy in Ireland

  1. Steve says:

    Interesting post, great read. I wonder if most of the illiterate adults are of an older generation (where perhaps literacy was valued differently than it is today), or if many young Irish adults are illiterate as well.

  2. Dermot says:

    A really interesting post which raises some valid and salient questions about adult literacy.

  3. Pingback: UNESCO’s Global Literacy Challenge: The Right to Read | growingupinamerica

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