The Hidden Challenges of Having Low Literacy

16 March 2018 Magazine

The Hidden Challenges of Having Low Literacy

44% of Australians aged 15 to 74 lack the literacy skills to manage everyday tasks.

But what does that mean on a practical level?

We talk to Magoo (who sells The Big Issue but has never read it) about the challenges of having low literacy.


More than many of us realise, reading forms an essential part of our daily lives - from understanding street signs to medicine bottles to bills. In this edition of The Big Issue, vendor Magoo shares his story of living with low literacy.

Image: Daniel Gray-Barnett

"I sell The Big Issue, but I've never ever read one… People come up to me and ask me, 'What's in the book?' and I tell them straight away I can't read, I just sell it," Magoo tells writer Anna Spargo-Ryan.

"I live a hands-on life. I can't read medication and usually I've got to get my partner to tell me about my medical paperwork, my Centrelink paperwork. She's got to read it and tell me about it."

For 51-year-old Magoo, having low literacy affects him every day, and his story is not a rare. As Spargo-Ryan discovers, only 56 per cent of Australians with intermediate or higher literacy skills.

So, what can be done? Spargo-Ryan seeks answers from children's author Mem Fox.




Also in this special books edition, The Big Issue explores the world-expanding power of reading and the many wonderful ways books shape our lives. 


For the love of reading

Beloved children's authors Cressida Cowell (How to Train Your Dragon) and Andy Griffiths (Treehouse series) reveal the kids books that made them fall in love with reading for the first time.    

And Morris Gleitzman, Australia's new Children's Laureate, tells Judith Ridge why kids' literature is so important.

"Young people need stories more than ever. Stories to delight, stories to beguile, stories to inspire, stories to move deeply," Gleitzman says.

"Through these experiences, they need stories that equip young readers to embrace an often dark and uncertain world with optimism, resolve and creativity."


Reading lessons

Peter Ferraro (right) spent most of his life trying to hide the fact he couldn't read, telling his children he was too tired for bedtime 

stories. But feeling he had let his family down gave him the spur he needed to get help – at 52 years old.

"There weren't special reading classes at school back then; I got left behind," he writes.

"My wife knew that I had difficulty reading, but I kept it from my kids, because I wanted to be the adult. I thought, It should be me learning them, not the other way round. I used to tell the kids that I was too tired to read to them or that I couldn't find my glasses.

"When my brother Garry got married, he gave me their wedding vows for me to read. I pretended to read them and gave them back. I felt sad, embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't say anything back to him, as all the family were there."

Now Peter's making strides in his reading lessons.


To read these articles and more, buy a copy of the latest Big Issue magazine from your local vendor - or subscribe online.

Magazine cover art by Sophie Beer / The Jacky Winter Group. Photograph of Magoo by Jacob Pederson.

For help with literacy, call the Reading Writing Hotline, 1300 6 555 06.


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