Last week I met a 78 year old lady who had managed all her life without reading a letter, a bill, a magazine or a book.  She had got by - somehow - and yet when I met her she was as excited as a five year old at Christmas.  One of her grandchildren had enrolled her into evening classes at their local college, and it was here, after a lifetime of ‘getting by’, she was finally learning to read and write.  Her take on the language that so many of us take for granted was enlightening.  Why on earth are there so many ways to spell ‘there’?  Why do names have capital letters? Why does a c sound like an s sometimes, and then other times a k?  Why does the letter u sound like an ‘uh’ in ‘butter’ and ‘up’, but turns an o into a u in the word ‘you’?  You won’t be surprised to know I couldn’t answer any of her questions - although I suspect that most of them were rhetorical anyway - why is that ‘h’ there, by the way?! It was her enthusiasm that was infectious, her utter delight at slowly, ponderously, getting to the end of a sentence all on her own and it making sense to her.  Forget the lottery, this lady had found gold.  How had it come to this, I asked her?  What happened in her childhood that had stopped her learning the basic reading skills that would guide her through her adult life?  Coming from a large, poor family, where aspirations were something only the privileged had, she left school at 7 to look after younger siblings, married at 18 and worked in menial tasks all her life where she could blend into the background - essentially hide away where she wouldn’t be challenged or bothered.  Friends helped her when she needed it, taught her to write to her name when she had to, and her husband took charge of ‘the word stuff’, as she called it.  She told me however, that following the death of her much-loved husband she began to feel isolated - despite her extended family living in the locality.  It was her youngest grandchild - an up-and-coming 30-something, who took matters into his own hands and enrolled her at college, who provides the taxi service every week to take her there and back and who marks her homework each week.   That’s what you call support.
Learning to read and write is very hard, no matter how young or old you are.  Both my children learnt early, and I was intrigued by the different ways they did that learning.  One did it on sight, memorising the words, the other by sounds with associated pictures.  A fascinating contrast in learning methods, and you can see why so many kids don’t get to grips with reading and writing if we’re trying to teach them differently to how their brains are wired.  The UK Literacy Trust has just released a report that makes, ahem, interesting reading: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/adult_literacy/illiterate_adults_in_england

How important it is then, when notable personalities endorse things like the BBC’s 500 Words competition for children under 13 http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/32931622.  The winning story in her category, written by Amabel Smith, 10, is great.   Are you parent, an uncle or aunt, a friend of a family with young children?  Whatever- it doesn’t matter, but try and find the time to read with them.  Forget sweets as treats - try a book instead.   Good for the brain and much better for the teeth.