What it’s like being unable to read all your life


What it’s like being unable to read all your life

For many of us, reading isn’t something we think about; we just do it. It’s so ingrained in our head that we just look at the words and our brain automatically does the rest. For a growing number of people who struggle to read properly in the UK, this is far from their reality. 

In the UK’s most deprived areas, up to 35% of the adult population lack the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. This has a serious impact on the rest of their life. 

Getting by

When you can’t read properly - or at all - your exclusion from society becomes clear. This is strange, considering even those who are illiterate can still get by in the UK. For example, Vice recounts the story of Norman, who left school at 15 to become a construction worker, even though he lacked basic literacy skills. 

He says, “You could go through life quite easy. If you started reading a book on a building site, people would think you were mad as well.”

Yet these claims are called into question on further analysis. According to the National Literacy Trust, three times as many people who are functionally illiterate rate their health as ‘very poor’ compared to their literate counterparts (37% vs 11%). Public Health England says 42% of all working-age adults are unable to make use of everyday healthcare information, affecting not only their own health but also their children’s. 54% of offenders in custody have a reading age at or below that of an 11-year-old, compared to 15% of the general population. Perhaps being unable to read properly isn’t just a minor inconvenience. 


The reason the literacy challenge in the UK slips under the radar is because the very nature of the issue is exclusionary. Those who can and can’t read are often separated from the outset by class, wealth, location, and, as they grow older, occupation. The two worlds don’t collide in the UK, with an overwhelming number (40%) of the most disadvantaged children unable to read properly when they leave primary school. And they never get the opportunity to catch up to their peers. 

Being unable to read is also culturally exclusionary. If we don’t read books, news articles, or interesting things you see online, our worldview can become more limited as we struggle to engage in wider conversations prompted simply by reading something from someone we don’t know. 

Social mobility

It’s unsurprising that being unable to read greatly limits your opportunities for employment in the UK. If you can’t read properly, it’s unlikely you’ll go on to higher education, or enter a job that requires reading, which keeps those with limited literacy skills in lower-paid positions. Their children are more likely to come from a disadvantaged background, and their parents can’t help them with their own reading or education, then they go on to have poor literacy skills and the cycle continues. 

The literacy challenge in the UK is a problem bred from inequality, which only serves to promote further inequality. The only way to solve this problem is to acknowledge it and the stigmatisation of those with reduced literacy skills, and intervene to break the cycle, ensuring children and adults have the opportunity to enhance their reading skills. These children will become the workforce of the future and if we want to progress as a nation we need to make sure everyone has as many advantages as possible. We can only be as good as our most deprived after all.

This is something we truly believe in here at Coster Content. If you want to find out how you can help, get in touch with Alia Coster on 0161 413 8418.

Alia CosterComment