Beadle's about to raise public awareness of adult learning

15th August 2008 at 01:00

Undoubtedly there was something miraculous about the recent Channel 4 series Can't Read Can't Write - not just the fact that some adults learnt to read and write under the glare of television cameras, but that the issue of adult literacy was given prominence during prime time viewing.

Of course, it had to be entertaining, edgy even. Phil Beadle, billed as the country's "best and most controversial teacher", informed us that this was the learners' "last throw of the dice" to learn to read - quite why that should be we never actually learn.

The Skills for Life strategy came in for a lot of criticism. But, while some of Beadle's criticisms were valid, the truth is it has changed the face of this area of adult education. The National Audit Office reckons 5 million people have been helped, hundreds of thousands have had their confidence lifted, and the target set for adults to succeed at a national test has been met nearly two years ahead of time.

So it's great that, for three weeks, the public has been able to see the barriers faced by adult learners and the dedication and skills required of an effective teacher.

Phil Beadle admitted that he was not trained to teach adults, that he had never been in an adult literacy classroom, and that when a youngster comes into his classroom unable to read they will, at the end of the year, leave it in the same state. Many admired his honesty about the challenge ahead and his own shortcomings. He waded in with the kind of energy that was exhausting to watch, and made real contact with some of the nine learners, listening to their stories and finding ways to help them.

Much to his astonishment, it sometimes seemed, he had to deal with a group of feisty, intelligent adult learners, four of whom were complete beginners who had coped thus far and did not take kindly to being treated like children. It must have been a different experience for Beadle, having learners who developed rational arguments, criticised his teaching methods and left when they'd had enough.

But we need to remember that this is reality TV - someone has to cry, someone has to have a magic moment and someone has to flounce out. The reality is that dedicated teachers start from where the adult is - what their learning and coping style has been and what they want to know. Phonics will be a part of an overall method, but it may not be the best approach for an adult who has got by for 30 years. Whatever we do needs to emphasise the importance of responding to individual needs and using multisensory approaches.

So where does Beadle go wrong? Well, he searches for teaching methods before understanding broad adult approaches. He uses curriculum materials as if they were a syllabus instead of guidance. And he clearly believes that making adults take a test and fail is somehow good for them.

But, despite the voyeuristic, exploitative nature of the series, there are lessons here for the education world. First, more secondary school teachers need to know how to teach literacy skills better. Second, we need to hear more from adult learners; their voice is a necessary condition for change. Third, new teachers must have had access to good professional development - about how to teach spelling, for example.

Channel 4 has given us a first-class teaching aid for professional development. Let's not lose the momentum or passion that Can't Read Can't Write has created.

Carol Taylor, Director of literacy, language and numeracy, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

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