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Why Literacy Skills are Important: Mary-Ruth Mendel


| By Jo McKay | August 28, 2020

As Officeworks’ annual Wall of Hands fundraising campaign kicks off, we chat to ALNF co-founder Mary-Ruth Mendel about life, literacy skills and learning.

Before she was 10 years old, Mary-Ruth Mendel saw a children’s television program about hearing-impaired kids – and was struck with an overwhelming sense of injustice that there might be people in the world who struggled to communicate. That early experience set up a lifelong passion for helping kids learn to read and write. Not only has Mendel had a storied and decades-long career as a speech pathologist, she is also the creator of Yabayaba Resources, a range of excellent foundational literacy tools, and the co-founder of The Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation , which has a single and steadfast goal: to raise language and learning standards in Australia, including in Indigenous communities. “It's about teaching others so that they have the skills in their communities to teach their own children and other children – and break the cycle of trans-generational illiteracy,” she says.

This month marks the seventh year of Officeworks and ALNF’s partnership for the Wall of Hands appeal – a fundraiser that provides literacy packages and programs for Australia’s most marginalised communities. As Mendel says, “Wall of Hands is about everyone saying ‘I want this to be different for children in Australia; that it’s not okay that some kids miss out and don’t get access to their bright future; that what we want in Australia is equity and opportunity for children’, which is what literacy provides.” Below, she shares her thoughts on literacy as the golden key and tells how parents can boost their kids’ language and learning skills at home.

Mary-Ruth Mendel tells us why literacy skills are still so important for Australian children.

The Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation’s Mary-Ruth Mendel

Literacy Is the Cornerstone of Life, Community, Society

At the granular level, you cannot access the modern world if you cannot access print. If you can’t decode the squiggles on the page and make sense of them, then you can’t go through schooling, can’t get a job, can’t participate in society. The vital multiplier is your ability to unscramble the code [of] our print system.

Sometimes Reading Comes Naturally; Mostly, It Doesn’t

About a third of kids look at the print on the page and connect the squiggles to words they say. They are naturally wired to do it. There is another third who will need to have tips and hints because they don’t quite get it. They can recognise lots of words but there are stumbles and pitfalls, and they need somebody to show them how reading is put together. Then there is another third of children who need to have the reading system explicitly explained to them to develop their literacy skills. Just reading to them and hoping that some of it hits the sides, hoping that they catch on, is never going to be good enough.

 The ALNF’s Mary-Ruth Mendel on why improving literacy skills is so important for kids.

The More You Read, the More You Know

[It’s about] getting through that first gate of connecting those squiggly bits on the page with the words you say out of your mouth; putting those two together and making sense of it. There are varying degrees of how much support children need and I don’t think we [as a society] focus on that and hence that’s why ALNF does focus on that.

ALNF’s Goal Is Born Out of Passion… and Outrage

We have a very simple mission – for all children to be able to speak and listen, read and write, and to be able to do that fluently. If people don’t have a voice, then they’re disenfranchised, and I’m outraged by that. My mother tells the story of when I was under 10 and I had seen an afternoon piece on children’s TV that was about hearing-impaired children. I came out to her and said in a very determined way, “That's what I am going to do; I’m going to teach children how to talk.” It had never occurred to me that some people may not be able to talk and I can remember that penny dropping, [the idea that] you can’t hear means you can’t talk and if you can’t talk, your life is really different to mine. I was a great talker as a kid [and] that was, to me, an untenable position those kids were in.

Literacy Should Be for Everyone, in All Languages

When we come to talk about Indigenous first languages, there’s a lot of us outraged that Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, do not have their oral languages in learning-to-read-and-write resources. We’ve worked incredibly hard to listen carefully and provide the answers that community elders have requested from us. And that comes from being just furious that in this lucky country it can be so lucky for some and just not particularly lucky for others.

The ALNF’s Mary-Ruth Mendel on why improving literacy skills is so important for kids.

Reading Is About Breaking Language In to Bite-Sized Pieces

We have parents saying, “I want to get my child off to a good start, what do I do?” or “My child’s got the wobbles, they’re at school and the teachers don’t know what to do.” Teachers will say, “This child is a great kid but they’re just way behind”. [People] are not sure what to do. The early language and literacy program we’ve written helps parents by breaking things down into bite-sized bits. Once people see [the resources], they go, “Of course, that makes sense. I’ve forgotten all about that.” All of the games, such as nursery rhymes, I-spy or the memory games, the whisper games – all of those are actually good for nourishing little people’s brains and for wiring them up so when they step into school, they know that words have got a pattern to them.

SEE ALSO: How Parents Can Support Kids Education at Home

We Think, Erroneously, That Children Learn to Read at School

A child’s best chance at being a reader, paradoxically, occurs in the years before they go to school. From ages 0-5 is the time when the brain is growing the fastest and when oral language is developing. Oral language is the bedrock on which literacy skills are built. If you don’t have enough oral language – as in, know enough vocabulary and sentence types – or if you don’t have enough practice in listening, you’re not going to have the brain architecture that’s necessary to be able to read words.

You Can Start Working on Literacy From the Moment Kids Are Born

Brain research is now showing that an unborn baby is listening to speech sounds before they are born. Once they’re born, survival mechanism means they can actually tell the difference between human voices and background noise. So you should be reading to children to introduce them to the human speaking voice very early on. By the time they are 1, the amount of learning they have done through listening is massive. They have really refined their listening system and their brain has grown.

Mary-Ruth Mendel on how literacy skills can ensure equality and opportunity for kids.

Kids Have to Connect Print to Their Own Speech

Between 0 and 2, you are getting the human voice into kids’ minds through the talking system, through reading books and pointing at pictures and asking, “What did you see?” and “Why did this happen?”. Then, [after they turn 2,] start really drilling in, showing how print connects to speech. Children who don’t say enough and don’t have enough experience in saying words are not going to find it very easy to work out how the squiggles represent their own speech.

We Teach the Teachers (and Parents)

We say, “I’ll teach you what to do, I’ll give you the resources” and then, “I’ll mentor you, I’ll walk shoulder to shoulder with you, so that you can do it too”. [It’s important for] for parents and community members to be empowered to teach their own children to read, and for teachers and educators to be supported in their classroom [to help] children who haven’t made that transition and need extra lessons. Our work is speech pathology-meets-education and of course we focus on the early years because that’s when you break the failure cycle.

Community Is Key

It ends up that teachers, teachers’ aides, mums, grandmas, aunties, librarians do our coursework with us. If it’s in first language, then resources are developed with the community, on the same principles of early language and literacy learning. If you teach one teacher, one teacher’s aide, one mum, there are many, many children, year after year, that are going to be the beneficiary of that learning, that support, that mentoring.

Australian model Samantha Harris supports Officework’s Wall of Hands in 2019

Australian model Samantha Harris lent her support to Officeworks’ Wall of Hands fundraiser in 2019.

How You Can Help: Officeworks’ Wall of Hands 2020

Supporting ALNF is easy thanks to Officeworks’ annual Wall of Hands fundraiser. You can buy a $2, $5, $10 or $20 ‘hand’; 100% of the funds raised through the Wall of Hands appeal go to delivering literacy programs in Indigenous communities across the nation. This year, the $20 hand was created by Officeworks’ National Indigenous Engagement Lead, Bayley Mifsud, to represent the landscape of Gunditjmara country in south-west Victoria. Mifsud’s rationale of her work: “the Gunditjmara believe that the landscape's features mark out the traces of a creator, who emerged in the form of the volcano [Budj Bim, also called Mt Eccles] . In a spate of eruption, the lava flows, constituting his blood and teeth, spilled over the landscape, fashioning its wetlands. It represents the volcano, the trees, the mountains, the lakes, the animals, the huts and the community.”

Officeworks Wall of Hands fundraiser supports Indigeneous literacy programs.