Keynotes

Literacy is Freedom 

For those who cannot use it [literacy] are excluded from much communication in today’s world. Indeed, it is the excluded who can best appreciate the notion of ‘literacy as freedom’ 

UNESCO – Literacy Decade 

This was my message today to headteachers of special schools at the @swalls_uk leaders two day conference.  

But what is literacy? I began by asking what makes a good speaker, listener, reader and writer? Interestingly, listening was the hardest to define.

We watched a video from Save The Children called ‘Read On Get On’ highlighting the disastrous route a child could take if their parents don’t read to them.  How did this feel for heads, teachers and parents with children with complex needs though?  Parent blame  can be strong in SEND regarding language and literacy. Of course the message about reading for 10 minutes a day with your child is a great one but as Professor Bishop explains regarding language, the parent and child model is not the only one.  We know from research by Hart and Risley (1995) how important talking to children at an early age is but what about genetic and environmental factors? In the world of special schools especially,  it is important to recognise high expectations but also how disability can affect learning and to make that judgement call on deciding how best to enable pupils to access literacy and achieve more. 

Jonathan Bryan is a story every teacher should know because it highlights why we must challenge our perceptions about how children are accessing learning and communicating and what they are truly capable of achieving. Jonathan was labelled as PMLD through early years but then his mum took him out for an hour a day to teach him reading and writing. They tried eye gaze technology but it could not track Jonathan’s eyes but his teachers could. He can now communicate by using a word board with someone tracking his eyes. Using this, within two years Jonathan had caught up with his typically developing peers in literacy and moved to a mainstream school.  Jonathan talks of previously being locked in and now campaigns for all children, no matter the label, to be taught literacy. He has a charity called ‘Teach us Too’ and has written a book called Eye Can Write. This story embodies literacy as freedom and it has touched me deeply.


My message today for SWALLs’ leaders in Torquay was to keep searching for the sparkle, challenge perceptions and look for ways to enable all children to be taught how to communicate. I finished with this new image of my teenage hero, Debbie Harry, taken by Annie Leibovitz for Blondie’s 40th anniversary. I am calling her my literacy freedom fighter.

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