“Lost For Words” shows there is hope for those struggling with literacy to shop and cook
— The tthree-part series Short of words premieres at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 22 on SBS and SBS On Demand —
Imagine trying to follow a recipe when the words and numbers just don’t make sense. Buy ingredients when you can’t read the names on packages, bags, and boxes. Or order in a cafe when you can’t read the menu.
For Australians with literacy challenges, these are very real issues – and just one facet of the nation’s insanely low adult literacy rate. It is estimated that approximately 43 percent of Australian adults lack the literacy skills necessary for the basics of everyday life, from shopping to navigating public transport or applying for a job.
Like the heartwarming new SBS documentary series Short of words shows, there can be many reasons why people have trouble reading and writing. And above all, there is hope.
Hosted by literacy advocate Jay Laga’aia, this three-part series follows a small group of courageous Australians as they join an intensive nine-week adult literacy program. And in addition to classroom lessons, there are hands-on activities, including a cooking class with Chef Mark Olive.
âCooking is just one of the most difficult things in the world for me. But cooking with Mark was just amazing, âsays Shelle, the IT assistant, one of the eight participants in the program. âHe was so nice. He was so warmâ¦ and he seemed to sense when I was in trouble and he would just come with a word of encouragement or just help me understand. It has helped a lot.
Before their cooking class, participants are given a list of ingredients to purchase before their cooking class. Watching them try to write shopping lists and then find everything they need in a supermarket is a confronting reminder of the difficulty of everyday life when words don’t work.
But it also shows that there is a way forward. Each participant sets a personal goal at the start of the show. For arborist Mike, it’s being able to read a menu and order a meal for his partner; for a mother of two, Makere means reading books to her daughter and son; Lamine, who speaks four languages ââbut struggles to read, wants to get his driver’s license, while Shelle dreams of writing a book.
As the show progresses, the group delves into an intense mix of classroom lessons with Professors Jo Medlin and Adam Nobilia, and a series of hands-on exercises. They attempt to follow a set of written clues and make their way through Sydney on public transport to meet Laga’aia for lunch; there is a confidence-building group session at NIDA with Australian actor and director Marcus Graham; and this cooking lesson with Mark Olive, where they bake his kangaroo pie and chocolate dampener (a version of this recipe that Olive shared on Cooking with Adam Liaw).
âCooking is something that is often found in an adult literacy class,â says Jo Medlin, president of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy, âOne of the differences between literacy for children and literacy for adults is that adult literacy has to be about something real and authentic in your daily life and the food, the shopping, the cooking, we we all need food. It is really vital.
And, she says, it’s not just about preparing a meal. âFood is also about health literacyâ¦. if you have to follow a special diet, or if you need to reduce your intake of salt or sugar or something like that, being able to solve that problem if you can’t read all the ingredients becomes more and more difficult. And it’s the same with other types of reading. You know, in this buying challenge, if they were going to buy drugs, you have to be able to read that accurately. “
Leanne Foreman, who heads the Easy-to-read recipe site, is another who saw the difference navigating a recipe can make. âI’ve always loved to cook, but I’ve always been frustrated with the way I had to keep moving back and forth between ingredients and method in a traditional recipeâ¦ My brain needed a more logical, one-way process. So I developed a different way of writing a recipe.
âThen when I had kids with neurological diversity, I really needed to save time and reduce stress in the kitchenâ¦ and my easier recipe format helped me.
âAs the kids got older, I decided to refine the format of my recipe to make it more inclusive. I wanted my kids to be able to follow a recipe more easily. I used my existing knowledge and skills in home economics education and computer programming to make my format unique, even more user-friendly and logical. Next, I researched how to make it more user-friendly for a wider audience, especially people with ADHD and dyslexia.
âThe main difference from the traditional method is that it is unidirectional instead of back and forth between the ingredients and the method. Once you’ve completed a step, you don’t have to look back. The bolding of action verbs, the use of color to highlight ingredients, the use of easier-to-read fonts, colors and font sizes all help to make the recipe more user-friendly, âexplains Foreman to SBS, this same format being used in several e-books it is published.
Medlin says literacy is a hidden epidemic – but she hopes Short of words will help people talk more easily about their literacy problems. âI really hope the show helps people talk about it in a way that kind of takes away that stigma around it. It’s a hidden issue, and I think that’s why people are surprised. when they see these stats … hopefully people will see it and say ‘oh it’s like me you know it’s okay i can help’ i would like to think this will open that kind of access for people.
There is clearly a team spirit in the series, with all the participants helping each other.
âAnytime we had problems, whether in a team exercise or during class if for some reason we couldn’t find a teacher, there was no stigma in going out for help. to someone else, âsays Shelle. âIt was, you know, circling around a chair or walking over to someone in the supermarket or when we were cooking in the kitchen, and saying, ‘Can you help me? , I too have trouble ‘.
“I’ve never had this before, so it was really heartwarming.”
Shelle deals with both dyslexia and the digital equivalent, dyscalculia, which makes cooking doubly difficult. âBefore I can get into the kitchen, I have to get past the recipe. I’m going to start it up, and my brain is skipping things.
Medlin says there are many reasons someone can have literacy problems, and the important thing is not whether there is a label for the situation, but knowing that it there is a way forward. âThe reasons are so diverse, and they could be anything from a disrupted learning, you know, something that happened while you’re in school; maybe it’s been since then maybe you haven’t read and written much so you’ve lost some of those skills and need a bit of refresher … and the literacy requirements change all the time too.
âI hope what came out of the show is that, in a sense, reason doesn’t matter to any of the adults on the show or any of the adults we work with, because it s. ‘It’s about moving forward from here. “
If you or someone you know needs help with reading, writing, or basic math, Medlin says a good place to start is Reading and writing helpline (1300 6 555 06), a free national reference service for adults, which provides information on courses, tutors and resources.
âAnd I think it’s important to know that Adam and I, like all other literacy teachers, don’t judge, and if you come forward for help, you won’t be treated like you were the problem. We realize that literacy is the barrier, and there are a whole bunch of different reasons for that, âshe says.
Shelle says Short of words made a big difference in her life.
âI loved it so much, I’m so grateful to have been part of it. The teachers and my classmates, they’re all amazing people and I’m so lucky to have met them, and Jay, he was amazing.
âI still have a lot of work to do because it was only a nine week program, but it set me on a right path, a good solid path to help me understand the written world. And she’s also working on this book.