What do you do when you can’t read or express yourself in writing?

You will say to me, but it is the base “reading & writing”, we learn that from our youngest age. Yes yes, but unfortunately not for everyone. As previously mentioned in the article “Handi…what? All in the same bath, let’s promote inclusion”, there are visible and invisible handicaps that make us all more feverish.


Illiteracy is an invisible disability that makes us vulnerable to everyday life. It is an uncomfortable situation for adults who have completed their schooling but who have no or insufficient knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic. In Belgium, one adult in 10 is illiterate. We are talking about Belgians, born and educated in Belgium, leaving the school system without any basic knowledge. Being illiterate does not make daily life easier, which is made up of continuous interactions. Reading labels at the supermarket, deciphering an instruction manual, managing administrative mail, filling out a registration form, understanding a train schedule,… are all activities that are commonplace for some people and a huge challenge to overcome for others.

The consequences of illiteracy

The consequences of illiteracy are multiple at different levels and constraining for the people concerned. On a personal level, not mastering the basic skills of reading and writing does not help one’s self-esteem and is usually a well-kept secret. There will always be shame and pain present in the person. There are certain individual factors that can influence this harsh reality, such as a lack of identification with the writing culture, a situation of rupture (divorce, illness, moving), a lack of practice or a learning pace (probably too slow) not taken into account by the educational system in place. At the economic level, it is the professional integration in the digital era that is ambitious today. Before, to find a job while being illiterate, one simply had to ‘ignore this little personal problem’ and find a manual job. The digitalization of jobs does not make it easier to find a job if the person is illiterate, or if he or she has a lack of knowledge of computer tools. According to an ICT study, 39% of Belgians between 16 and 74 years old have no or low digital skills, which is in line with the European average (43%). Luxembourg (15%) and the Netherlands (20%) are in the lead. These communication difficulties within the company can increase certain risks of accidents leading to an increase in absences. Lastly, at the social and cultural level, parents who cannot read or write will find it difficult to follow their children’s education, participate in cultural life and associations and fulfill their role as citizens.

One could say that parents transmit illiteracy to their children, but this singular shortcut of thought is not a causality. There are many variables to consider, including those of the school. School is the main source of learning for children from an early age. Each child arrives with his or her family background (income, culture, language,…) There is a huge diversity within the classes and it is up to the teacher to bring his or her students to the top. Indeed, children from disadvantaged social backgrounds do not have the same facilities as a child who grew up in an advantaged environment, but this is not his fault. Penalizing the child for his or her family background will not help the child gain confidence or learn. Various studies have concluded that the more academic the skill (e.g., mathematics), the greater the socioeconomic effect on results. The choices of orientation when it comes to the question of doubling up are often made by the school institution and increase inequalities. In order to counteract these inequalities, family literacy equips working-class families with skills that make it possible to fight (partially) against the growth of these inequalities at school. There are 3 times of inequality where literacy can counteract these inequalities:

– Time A: Language differences in the primary school years
– Time B: Gaps due to lower socio-economic background
– Time C: repetition of the first year of primary school

It is at school that everything is played out

Education, we will never stop saying it, is crucial from early childhood. As early as kindergarten, we must go against the current of acceptance of inequalities. For example, we often hear people say, “With the family this child has, it’s normal for him to be in difficultý! “. The Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect, increases when a child with learning difficulties will not be supported by his parents. And if the teacher gets involved too, it doesn’t look good. Another trend, called “didactic overfitting,” where teachers facilitate “guided” learning for students, diminishing their thinking skills.

As an example, Teach for Belgium, supported by Semlex for Education, is a non-profit organization that advocates equal opportunities for success for all students regardless of their socio-economic background.

Other projects that you would like to share with us, do not hesitate to contact us!

Written by Emilie de Gerlache for Semlex for Education

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