Dot writes: freed by the heroic efforts of my husband to put our baby to bed, last night I indulged in an unfamiliar luxury: I watched some television. We didn’t have a television in the last flat. Anyway, I was very much interested by a programme on Channel 4 called Can’t Read, Can’t Write. It’s a stunt of sorts, but a socially responsible one, I think: a teacher called Phil Beadle tries to teach a group of adults who are to varying degrees illiterate to read and write. Last night’s programme focused particularly on two quite mature ladies who had previously been completely unable to read and who have now learnt some fluency (one is reading Little Women), and on a single mum who started the class with a reading age of twelve and is desperate to stop her dyslexic son suffering the same disadvantages in life that she has.
I was struck, not for the first time, by how obviously intelligent a person can be and yet still fail utterly in the school system. And once you’ve failed a bit, you tend to fail more and more; and you acquire huge mental and emotional barriers towards learning in the way that didn’t work for you. Phil Beadle was extremely creative about trying different teaching methods; for example, he got his students to practise writing with a game that involved bouncing across the room on space hoppers. However, he did at one point use the traditional method of talking at the front of the class and writing points up on a whiteboard. It got a very bad reaction; one of the older ladies complained vociferously and then walked out. She was highly articulate in explaining why her own rude interruptions and refusal to engage were the teacher’s fault. As Mr Beadle remarked, it was clearly a method that didn’t work for her.
As a university teacher I have it easy, because with only extremely rare exceptions my students are people who are already comfortable with traditional academic modes of learning. But it is worth remembering that, however much energy one puts into explaining the content of a course as lucidly as possible, constructing the ladders of thought one wants one’s students to climb, people are deeply affected by the whole learning environment – their fellow students, the mode of teaching, the rooms, the smells, the associations. Old English really panics some students and we have to work to overcome their sense that language learning, especially traditional grammar, is the sort of thing they just can’t do. I wonder if I can learn anything from this programme about how to deliver OE in a more accessible way?
Now, if I can just get my Head of School to authorize purchase of six or seven space hoppers…*