What a shock it was to find out that almost half of all Australians are functionally illiterate and innumerate! As a writer, and an avid reader these figures are, to me astounding. When there are more books published per year than ever before, reading, and arithmetic are simple aspects of life that I could never…

What a shock it was to find out that almost half of all Australians are functionally illiterate and innumerate!

As a writer, and an avid reader these figures are, to me astounding. When there are more books published per year than ever before, reading, and arithmetic are simple aspects of life that I could never comprehend not being able to do.

When my son was eleven, my wife and I were told that unless he conformed to the common standard of learning by phonetics, he would not be permitted to attend classes. When we refused, we took him out of his school, and began to teach him in the ‘old fashioned’ way. It was a difficult time, with warnings from the school that we could be prosecuted. It took a long time to jump through all the hoops to home-school him. Teachers were arrogant and threatening.

I’m glad now that we did.

What have we done wrong? Probably nothing. In an age of smartphones and a new language which has wormed its way into normality, phonetic texting, and predictive text have created generations who can get by without anyone ever knowing that they are unable to actually read and write, or do simple arithmetic.

Television commercials for mental health in Australia use the catch-line RUOK? Most people know what that means. But can they actually spell ‘are you OK?’ No, they have no cognizance of the actual spelling.

Texting has created its own kind of shorthand and, with predictive text most people can hit the right word because they have developed a ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ approach to reading and writing.

Calculators in smartphones take care of the arithmetic. Just punch in the right numbers (which are not difficult to learn) and the most complex math can be done in the blink of an eye.

These figures contradict the data which says that 92% of Australians have read at least one book in the past year, and more than 50% have read between one and ten books.

Surely there is something wrong. The figures from one, to not correlate with the figures from the other.

It does not give any data as to what kind of books a person has read. Or even if they have been truthful to cover illiteracy. (The vast majority of illiterate people will not admit to it, and have developed ingenious ways to cover up the fact that they cannot read or write.)

I recently spent a few minutes at the Dept of Transport to re-register my car. While waiting I began to read a couple of leaflets. They were written in a number of languages and at the top the words ‘If you need help in filling out this form, please ask.’ Now, it occurs to me that if one is functionally illiterate, how can you read those words?

Similarly and more ominously, voting forms are a worry. How can a person read the name of a party or an individual? Does it come down to simply picking the names at the top of the form, and ticking the boxes with 1, 2, 3, etc?

Personally I can’t imagine not being able to curl up in bed and read a good book. (I read hard copy print books rather then ebooks.) As a child I wanted to read everything. Even the back of HP Sauce bottles because on one side the description was in English, and on the other it was in French. I learnt a smattering of French from this.

In the United States more than 40 million people cannot read at a proficient level. While that equates to only about 20%, of Americans, that is almost double the entire population of Australia!

With technology getting smarter and insinuating itself more into daily life, more young people would prefer to play Candy Crush, or watch youtube videos rather than read words on an ebook or on a printed page. We are evolving rapidly into a specie that no longer wants to enjoy the fruits of our own imagination. Readers, and writers are slowly becoming obsolete. A return to a period before the middle of the 19th century, when the majority of people could not read, nor write.

A 2015 article on the use of computers in schoolrooms gives a disquieting picture of the future. A future which now, just two years later is proving to be accurate.

“Information and knowledge” was the catchphrase then and now, in the argument in favour of computers in schools. Access to information and knowledge has to be a secondary concern surely. How can a student access information and knowledge if they cannot read. Unless of course that information and knowledge is in the form of pictures or video?  Australia it seems has one of the largest uptake of computer use in schools, second only to Norway.

Computers are engaging. Students love to use them in classes. Teachers though have a lot to answer for. Instead of teaching, they have become de facto child-sitters. The quality of teachers is declining. No longer does a teacher require the best qualifications. In Australia teaching is no longer considered to be a worthy vocation. The ATAR score (Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks) is below 40! That in itself is borderline illiterate to my mind! I would not be very happy to have my child or children being taught by a person who barely scraped through on their exams!

This brings me to the whole point of this article. Refugees. Australia has now instigated tough new English tests to become an Australian Citizen. The test is vastly more difficult to complete than that required to become a nurse or a teacher in Australia. In fact, very few Australian students could pass the test!

“This test is key to Australia’s proposed new Citizenship test. You must also write two essays, do a 30 minute listening test and a 15 minute speaking exam. If it passes through Parliament this week, it will be used from 2017”

Should a refugee or new immigrant from a non-English speaking country actually pass the test, the immigration officer has the absolute right to re-test the applicant in another language!

Could YOU pass the test? You can try it for yourself. As a professional journalist and writer of over 50 years, I did complete the test well within the 60 minutes allowed. But I was brought up in a different era in which reading, writing and arithmetic were essential to completing our education up to the age of fifteen.

Can your child complete this test? Try it and see.



Author: grahamwhittaker
What do I call myself? A novelist? A journalist? Writer on demand? Copywriter? Ghostwriter? Poet? Is there a single word to describe all these things? if anyone knows one please tell me. I started out life as a journalist after my service time in the RN. I was 22. My love then was music writing, contributing articles to most of the pop/rock magazines of the time. As time went by I ghostwrote biographies for celebs, wrote novels, and made a general living from writing everything from love letters to translating menus in China to acceptable English. I have written greetings cards, manuals, How to books on so many subjects I forget. My living has been as a writer on demand. So, my blog is an eclectic collection of HOW MY BRAIN WORKS. Recently I started writing blogs for company blogs. In my retirement I find myself writing more, about more subjects than I ever covered as a roving journalist. I ask myself why having reached the age of leisure why I am now busier than ever before! If you have a blog, or a job to offer, I'm an obsessive researcher and turnaround time is fast. Yes, I know, I'm a HACK. A writer for money. A gun for hire. But hey... we all have our failings. Thanks for calling in. Feel free to chat and comment. I'll even get back to you with a thank you note!

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