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'Can't Read Can't Write'

Rachel O'Dowd reviews the Channel 4 series broadcast in July/August 2008

The three-part Channel 4 series Can't Read Can't Write followed the progress of nine adult learners who enrolled for a six-month literacy course taught by award-winning teacher[1] Phil Beadle. While the programme provided some moving footage of the varied experiences of a diverse group of adult literacy learners, I am sure I was not the only Skills for Life teacher in the country to feel infuriated by the way in which Beadle dismissed current professional practice out of hand.

Reinventing the wheel

Beadle is a self-confessed ingénue when it comes to teaching adult literacy. Yet, as he prepares for the task, he contents himself with a superficial review of the National Core Curriculum (NCC) before tossing the books aside in disgust. He observes what appears to be an ESOL* class (failing to acknowledge that this is a distinct discipline) and dismisses the provision as incompetent and inappropriate for native speakers.

He then embarks on a learning journey of his own. In the course of his mission he manages to well and truly reinvent the wheel, taking credit along the way for insights and approaches that are common knowledge to professionals in the lifelong learning sector.

At the same time he misses more than a few tricks. Had Beadle had the humility to allow himself to be mentored, he would have realised that teachers across the sector use the NCC not as a textbook but as a frame of reference, working intelligently and creatively within and around it, using the very methods he goes on to 'discover' in the programme.

A quick look at a website such as www.skillsworkshop.com reveals that awareness of differing learning styles is widespread, and that kinaesthetic, visual and auditory resources are used and shared by teachers across the country as a matter of course.

In his interview with Andrew Marr on Start the Week (July 7), broadcast in advance of the screening of Can't Read Can't Write, Beadle complained that there are 'no course materials based on synthetic phonics at all in the world of adult literacy'. It is not clear which course materials he has been exposed to.

The literacy teachers I know use phonics judiciously with those learners who can benefit from it. 'Materials' can include good old-fashioned pens and flipcharts. As the programme illustrates, the phonics approach does benefit many learners, but is not a panacea.

Personalised learning

Two of Beadle's learners leave the first session in tears. The Start the Week interview indicated that Beadle does have some familiarity with the Milestone levels in the NCC, but unfortunately he does not acknowledge this in the programme, complaining that Entry 1 is not a suitable starting point for beginners. Milestone materials would have helped him to carry out an initial assessment of his learners in a much more sensitive way.

Beadle seems intrigued to find that his learners all have different reasons for their inability to read and need different forms of help. Access for All, a government initiative with which all Skills for Life teachers are expected to be familiar, explores in some detail the diverse obstacles that adult learners face and suggests techniques and methods for removing these obstacles.

Had Beadle taken a more sympathetic approach to the institutions or organisations currently dedicated to providing opportunities for adult learners, he would have found that it is a common requirement that they identify and acknowledge learners' unique backgrounds, goals and aspirations, and create and update individual learning plans.

Non-celebrity Skills for Life teachers may not have access to nine spacehoppers or the luxury of calling upon the services of an expert calligrapher, but the challenge of differentiating within a group-teaching context is embraced, often with ingenuity and creativity, on a daily basis.


Successes and breakthroughs are celebrated in the series, but curiously, in the final episode, Beadle uses the tests associated with the NCC, the very framework he previously disparaged, in order to assess the learners' progress and to validate his own performance. He sets the exams in an Oxford college, an environment which might inspire some but is surely likely to intimidate others.

John, who is dyslexic, is urged to sit a paper which he is bound to fail. Kelly, who has made considerable progress during the sixmonth experiment, is castigated for failing the last paper by three marks and letting herself down. Beadle misleads star pupil Linda into thinking that a Level 2 literacy qualification is the same as a GCSE and is then disappointed when she has the courage and independence to question the whole operation, preferring to chart her own course.

Giving credit where it's due?

Beadle has written a letter, published on the Channel 4 website associated with the programme, that addresses itself directly to potential adult learners. In it he recommends several phonics books and provides a link to the British Dyslexia Foundation. Nowhere, however, does he suggest that there are classes available and teachers qualified to help[2]. Fortunately the 'Find out more' link on the main menu of the site makes good this omission.

While Can't Read Can't Write succeeds in raising awareness of both the emotional issues around learning basic skills and the pedagogical issues involved in teaching them, Beadle's desire to live up to his billing as 'controversial' and 'unorthodox' leads him to overlook important aspects of contemporary teaching policy and practice.

This conceit prevents him from giving credit where it is due and, more damagingly, suggests to potential learners that there is little to be gained from enrolling in government-funded classes taught by experienced, skilled, committed but ultimately 'ordinary' teachers.

Rachel O'Dowd is a recent PGDE* graduate, currently working at HMP Manchester

[1] Phil Beadle won the Guardian Award for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in 2004.
[2] The ads on TV gave information about classes but this was undermined by the content of the programme.

Can't comment?

We asked Channel 4 what the aim of Can't Read, Can't Write was: were they planning to challenge and change government policy? Provide inspiration to adults with low levels of literacy? Showcase good teaching practice? Or create headline-grabbing sensational tv?

They declined to comment on these issues, and also failed to provide any information on support offered to the featured learners once the filming had finished.

One of the learners present at the launch event held before the programmes were broadcast, explained how frustrated he felt at not reaching his goal during the sixmonth course and asked for continued support to help him - support that clearly hadn't been forthcoming from the programme makers.


Reinventing the wheel?

The LLU+ Professional Development Centre was used by Channel 4 during the filming of Can't Read, Can't Write, but LLU+ had no editorial control over the programme and no involvement in recruiting the students. They offered training to Phil Beadle, a self-confessed novice at teaching reading and teaching adults, but this was not taken up.

Love it or loathe it?

Whatever your opinion of the programmes featured in this issue of reflect, they certainly provide a useful source of material. If you're a teacher trainer, consider the potential to use clips from the shows with your trainee teachers to prompt discussion of different teaching styles, as one example of many.

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