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Stuck for Words

Friday, 7 May 2010

Why do so many people have problems reading and writing in Ireland?

Watch Stuck for Words to see the hidden lives of people who have been poorly educated

Most of us take reading and writing for granted but for thousands of Irish it's a constant struggle. 'Stuck for Words', a fascinating 6-part RTE documentary, tells the story of some of these people and the profound impact going back to education is having on their lives. It will be broadcast at 7.30pm on RTE One from Monday 10 May.

In Programme one, we meet four very different teenagers from Coolock. Paul, Chantelle and Anthony all struggled in the traditional education system and dropped out of school early with very poor literacy. 17 year old Julie, a member of the travelling community, had never been to school. Now all of them are attending their local Youthreach - a centre that gives teenagers a second chance at education. This programme lets them tell their own story in their own words and shows how a little support can go a long way.

'Stuck for Words' is a personal transformation series that focuses on the journey of each individual person. It is a fresh, honest, often moving and insightful look at how people cope with having to learn the basic skills many of us take for granted. One in four adults in Ireland have difficulties with basic reading and writing skills, enough to affect their everyday lives. Many people with reading and writing difficulties invest a lot of time and energy into hiding this, due to the stigma associated with having literacy difficulties in today's society. This series aims to dispel this stigma.
Distance education service to support 'Written-off?'

Since 2000, the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) has been using the mass medium of television to highlight literacy issues, outline supports that are available, motivate people to return to education and provide opportunities for learning in the privacy of their own home. Once again this year, NALA has developed a specially designed, free distance education service to run alongside the new TV series.

Any viewer who is following the television series will have the option to call the NALA Freephone line and get materials posted out to them which they can then use at their own pace in the comfort of their own home.

The Freephone support line is 1800 20 20 65 and is staffed by experienced operators who can identify learner's level and needs, and match them with a distance education tutor. This tutor will suggest and design an appropriate learning package and support the learners as they use the materials to improve their skills.

NALA's distance education service has been developed with funding from the Department of Education & Science and the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment.

Stuck for Words will begin on RTE One on Monday the 10th of May. We have two teenagers who took part in the series and their tutor in studio and we are looking to highlight this new series and the profound impact going back to education is having on their lives.

The two teenagers that feature in the first episode, that will be broadcast next Monday 10, are Chantelle Harcourt (18) and Anthony Fynes (16). Inez Bailey, Director, NALA will accompany them and will be able to put their story into context for viewers/ explain why so many people leave school with reading and writing difficulties.

About Chantelle
. Grew up in Coolock. Left school at 15. Always in trouble and disruptive, got expelled.
. Low literacy level on leaving school, found it difficult to pick things up. Has improved a lot in Youthreach.
. Copes well in the centre because it's not like school and the tutors speak to them as equals - easier to learn in this environment.
. Her Dad has been clean for 10 years and is now a drugs counselor. His turnaround has had a positive effect on Chantelle. She speaks about him a lot. Wants to go to beauty college when she finishes in Youthreach.
. Started in Youthreach in February 2007

About Anthony
. Grew up in Coolock with his Mum, older brother and sister.
. Was expelled from school last year, when he was 15. Got kicked out after a number of things built up. He became a messer in school because he was unable to learn in class. Has a history of ADHD.
. Started Youthreach in October 2008

General Information on Literacy in Ireland from NALA
How many people have literacy difficulties in Ireland?

In 1997 the OECD carried out an international survey which examined how well adults could handle different types of reading and numeracy tasks which crop up regularly in work and in daily life - such as reading timetables, the labels on medicine bottles, or calculating and estimating quantities. This International Adult Literacy Survey concluded that one in four - that is, about half a million - Irish adults have problems with even the simplest literacy tasks, such as reading instructions on a bottle of aspirin.

Why do people have literacy difficulties?

There are many reasons why people have literacy and numeracy difficulties.

- Having to leave school early to take care of a sick parent
- Missing school through illness
- Not finding learning relevant to their needs
- Being part of a large class and not having specific needs catered for
- Having to start work early to bring money into the household
- The teaching methods in school didn't suit the student's learning style
- Being in a job that did not require using literacy skills - getting out of practice

Remember that many of the people with literacy difficulties in Irish society did not get the benefit of free second level education as it was only introduced in 1967.

(Literacy is like a muscle. You need to use it regularly or your skills weaken. Learning is a life long process. If you don't use reading and writing skills every day you can get out of practise. For example, if a person left school before junior cert and didn't have to practise their reading and writing skills in their work, they could easily get out of practise and lose confidence in their ability to use those skills.)

Who does it affect?

It affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Within the one in four figure there are people who are not able to write their own name. However most adults with low literacy skills can read something but find it hard to understand official forms and instructions. Some will have left school confident about their numeracy and reading skills but find that changes in their workplace and everyday life make their skills inadequate. The literacy skills demanded by society are changing all the time.

Does it predominately affect older people?

There can be an intergenerational impact - parents who have literacy difficulties (maybe they didn't get the chance to go to school) may then not be able to support their own children with their reading and writing. This can lead to their children falling behind and in turn having learning difficulties or a negative experience of school. In Ireland, 500,000 adults have literacy difficulties along with up to 30% of primary school children from disadvantaged areas. Research shows that children encouraged to read and learn at home quickly develop better literacy skills.

What stops people from returning to learning?

Sometimes people are not able to see the benefits to returning to learning. They had a negative experience of school in the past and associate returning to learning with that experience.

There is also a stigma attached to low literacy and numeracy skills. Often people feel too embarrassed to return to learning and go to great extremes to hide their difficulties from their friends and family. However, this does not have to be the case. Adult education 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 according to their needs and interests.

What are the benefits to returning to learning?

Throughout Ireland, lots of people are returning to learning and brushing up on their reading, writing and maths skills. They are people who want to catch up on the skills they missed at school, parents who want to help children with their homework, workers who would like to go for promotion but don't have the confidence to sit an exam and there are those who would simply like to write a letter or send an email.

Whatever the reason, the benefits are always the same. Not only do people improve their old skills but they also gain the confidence to go on to learn new ones. Although it requires some hard work, it's a great experience that opens up a whole new world of opportunities in a friendly and relaxed environment. And it's not like going back to school. Everyone learns at their own pace and there aren't any exams at the end.

What options are there for people who wish to return to learning?Who can they contact?

The important thing to remember is that it is never too late to return to learning and the benefits are great.

If you need to find out more just call the National Adult Literacy Agency support line 1800 20 20 65 and you will be put in contact with a literacy service closest to you. It's that simple. All you have to do is make the first call.

If you have access to the internet you can also check out further information on or
Adult literacy provision in Ireland
? 49,000 students in VEC Adult Literacy Services
? 5,500 tutors
? 1,500 paid tutors
? 4,000 volunteers
Annual funding of just €30 million

Information from Clare - NALA

Facts and Figures

There are 50,000 people around the country dealing with reading and writing difficulties.
NALA receives around 10,000 calls a year from people around the country.


There is a huge stigma surrounding illiteracy in Ireland and it takes many people a lot of courage even to phone the helpline.
Because of the stigma attached many people hide their reading and writing difficulties and often getting started in the programme can be the most difficult part of the process. Once they start to make some progress their confidence increases in a massive way. It profoundly changes the person and empowers them greatly.

NALA Freephone Helpline

NALA operate a freephone helpline so that people can contact the organisation in confidentiality and they will let them know what their options are and the ways that they can assist them.


1. NALA can send out a DVD and map of the 120 VEC operated centres around the country. People can visit the centres and have their level assessed. They can then decide whether one on one or group lessons would suit them best. A lot of the centres rely on volunteers and some paid tutors.
2. There are also courses on offer over the phone.

Has the recession made an impact?

NALA has seen a huge increase in the number of calls as people have lost their jobs in the recession and maybe did not have to rely on their reading and writing skills in a huge way for their profession. They are now realising that they will have a greater advantage in finding a new job if they improve their skills.

Ron Houghton - Tutor at Youthreach, Coolock


. Youthreach is run by the city of Dublin VEC.
. There are 104 centres throughout the country, with 10 in Dublin.
. It was set up in 1989 to assist teenagers between the ages of 16 - 20 a second chance if they had left school early and without any qualifications.
. 6% - 7% of school going kids will not settle in to the traditional school system, the kids in Youthreach come from all walks of life including local schools and schools with very good reputations.
. When they arrive at Youthreach they have a literacy assessment and are given work based on this.
. The centre offers FETAC qualifications.
. There are 6 groups in the Coolock centre with a max of 12 students in each group.
. There is also a literacy teacher who works with the children one on one during the week.

Ways that people get in touch with Youthreach

1. Previous School
2. Education Welfare Officer
3. Social Worker
4. Parents
5. The teenagers themselves
6. HSE

Press Release:

RTÉ FACTUAL: In new literacy series Stuck for Words we meet four very different teenagers from Bonnybrook Youthreach who all struggled in the traditional education system

There's more to literacy than reading and writing. People need to understand what's happening around them to get what they want out of life, and to be able to participate fully in society.
Stuck for Words, in association with the National Adult Literacy Agency, tells the story of people who have overcome personal difficulties to develop the skills they lost out on, and in doing so have changed their lives forever.

In Programme One, we meet four very different teenagers from Bonnybrook Youthreach in Coolock. Paul, Chantelle and Anthony all struggled in the traditional education system. 17-year-old Julie, a member of the travelling community, had never been to school.
Julie, a member of the travelling community prepares for her wedding. Until her family settled in Dublin three years ago, Julie had never been to school. Her tutors worry that her marriage will mean the end of her education.

15-year-old Anthony was always a 'messer' in school. He used bad behaviour to hide the fact that he couldn't read and write. Youthreach has given him a second chance.

Chantelle (18) originally from Coolock commutes to Bonnybrook Youthreach from Cavan everyday, and says she's learned a lot more than reading and writing. Before she started at the centre, she says she didn't care about anyone or anything. Now she hopes to go on to study beauty therapy at college.

Paul, from Ballymun, has just become an uncle. He spent his years in secondary school clashing with teachers, students and staff, and his mother felt like a constant guest in the Principal's office. Now a Youthreach success story, he wants to continue to better himself and to be a good role model for baby David.

For more information contact The National Adult Literacy Agency: or 1800 20 20 65
76 Lower Gardiner Street
Dublin 1
Phone: 01 855 4332
Fax: 01 855 5475

21, Lavitts Quay
Phone: 021 427 8655
Fax: 021 427 5680