I recently took a trip to Orlando. As a mother of three young children, I don’t get away much! Well, full disclosure, I haven’t gotten away alone for years! So I was full of excitement to be taking a trip to do some learning, personal growth and reflection. The first thing I was looking forward to was the plane ride. For others who have young children, you can fully appreciate what it is like to be able to read if you want, sleep if you want or even have a cocktail!
Being Canadian, the majority of the time that I head out of country, I am usually travelling home to Canada. Now that we can fly directly from Providenciales into Toronto, it has eliminated my need to travel through the United States. Upon reflection, I realized that I had not travelled to or through the United States in years. When I landed in Fort Lauderdale, I was immediately struck by how different things were from when I had last been through the airport. My goal was to clear immigration as fast as possible, re-check my bags, find my connecting gate to Orlando and then enjoy a beverage while reading and waiting for my next flight.
On the contrary, I found myself at every turn realizing how much reading I had to do to get by! This may sound like a silly comment coming from and educator, but I found myself slowing down to process information and ensure that I was going the correct way, answering the electronic kiosk questions appropriately and I noticed that I had a hyper-acuity. This hyper-acuity is natural when you are in new environments and need to navigate. This continued throughout my trip, as I was travelling in to an unknown place and environment.
Through the entire process, I found myself wondering, how do individuals who are illiterate or functionally illiterate travel or move out of their comfort zones? I have a vivid memory as a pre-teen travelling with my mother from a summer vacation in St. Vincent back to Canada and her helping a young gentleman fill out his travel forms. I was struck by this memory, and the thought that it would have been hard then, but imagine how hard it would be now!
So this brings me to a discussion that we rarely have about functional illiteracy. We have a hidden crisis in the Caribbean: that of functional illiteracy. We are not alone in the world with this crisis, as statistics from the United States and the United Kingdom reveal that approximately 1 in 7 adults is functionally illiterate, but the Caribbean is my home and I see the effects of this hidden crisis daily through my work.
Let’s first break down a few terms. Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak, understand and listen in order to be able to communicate effectively and understand your environment. When someone is referred to as ‘illiterate’ they have likely not been taught how to read or write. The term ‘functionally illiterate’ refers to individuals who have been through formal schooling but have an inadequate level of reading and writing skills in order to manage the business of day-to-day life. In other words, individuals who are ‘functionally illiterate’ can read and write at a basic level.
Therefore, for the functionally illiterate, everyday tasks beyond a basic level, can present real problems. They may have difficulty following written directions, reading signs or labels, filling out forms and writing emails or reports. For parents, this presents a further challenge, as they will have difficulty helping their children. We also know that a child’s level of literacy is strongly linked to the level of literacy of their parents.
Literacy is a touchy subject. It is personal. Individuals are often reluctant to ask for help when they struggle in this area. Individuals also learn how to do a marvelous job of compensating in order to avoid embarrassment, frustration and shame. The thing is, being functionally illiterate makes it difficult to thrive. When opportunity comes knocking and doors are opened, it makes it difficult to walk through them with confidence if you struggle with literacy. Opportunity brings an element of uncertainty and when we pair that with low literacy confidence, we find individuals that feel ‘stuck.’ This feeling can not only have effects on an individual’s self-esteem, but also on how they see the world and react to it.
Whether it is a family member, a business colleague, a church sister or brother or someone that you just happen to encounter, if you decide that you want to support an individual that you sense may be functionally illiterate, there are a few important points to keep in mind.
1. Let go of judgment. There are a host of reasons why an individual may have literacy challenges. When we are speaking the language of judgement and misconceptions, we often end up adding shame into the equation. Individuals do not thrive when they are shamed.
2. Show compassion. Literacy is an extremely personal thing. In order for an individual to move past frustration, and in some cases embarrassment, they need to be in a safe space that allows them to thrive. Being functionally illiterate is often not the fault of the individual. In many cases they have been through a system that has failed them, or had a challenge and did not have someone with the skills to help guide them in order to overcome that challenge.
3. Observe. Take time to observe the areas that they excel in and the areas that they are struggling in. What systems can be put into place to help them excel while using teachable moments to help them improve the level of their literacy.
4. Have hope. Functional illiteracy can be overcome at any age. It is not a life sentence that needs to be managed. There is help.
5. Be Patient. Although functional illiteracy can be overcome at any age, it is a process that takes time. Patience will be important on the part of the student as well as their support system. Overcoming functional illiteracy involves filling in gaps by learning, processing, retaining and applying information. This cycle takes practice, time and commitment.
If you want to support someone in improving their literacy skills and you aren't sure where to start, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shifting Perspectives is a weekly conversation with Yolande. Yolande, a Canadian of Caribbean descent, now calls the Turks and Caicos Islands home and in this podcast challenges Caribbean woman worldwide to fuel themselves with diversity in the way they think, the way they work, the way they parent and the way they live.