Reaching Functionally Illiterate Adults

LIFE ON THE REFRIGERATOR DOOR

©2007 by Alice Kuipers (text) and Kath Walker (illustrations)
First published in 2007 by Macmillan Publishers Ltd
My copy was published in 2008 by Macmillan Children’s Books.

I picked this second-hand book a few weeks ago and found it a quick read, being only a few sentences per page. However, it’s a very poignant story told by means of a string of notes written between a mother and her fifteen-year old daughter, Claire.

Mom — a doctor in a busy practice — is forever rushing out to tend others’ ills; Claire leads an active social life. So they converse at the refrigerator door. Mom’s notes are straightforward; Claire usually illustrates hers with teenage scribble-art.

The book starts with everyday communications: Claire should buy some of this and that; there’s a casserole in the fridge for supper; Mom’s forgotten to leave Claire’s allowance again; Claire laments that Mom is “never home anymore.” Then one day Mom indicates she has something serious to talk about.

They try to get together on it, but after a few futile attempts like clinic emergencies and school projects that must be done with at a friend’s place, Mom finally leaves a note: “I’ve found a lump in my right breast… I don’t think there’s anything to worry about…” Claire’s shock comes through clearly in her note, with another lament that “I never see you anymore.”

This book is well worth reading. In one way I found it a sad commentary on modern life for a single mother and our society’s “crazy busy” rush through life. But the writer makes her point in these brief spurts: we need to make time for each other before it’s too late.

Mulling over another problem, I suddenly saw a certain brilliance in the way Alice Kuipers has told this story. This writer with her fridge notes is onto something that we as Christians could get a handle on.

A survey done in Canada about twenty-five years ago revealed that one quarter of our population — folks born right here — are functionally illiterate. Back then it was just a statistic to me, but it’s become a reality as I help a relative to cope with life when she can barely read and write. Bank statements, bills — even phone books — are great trials for her Grade-four education. Most religious tracts are so far above her.

You could say she’s from the “olden days” when not all children had access to adequate education, but a lot of children growing up today aren’t learning the basics, either. Texting is partly to blame. A fellow writer told us one day that her niece, in Grade Four, can’t spell the word “are”; she just makes the letter R. So our writer friend has been helping her learn to read and write after school.

I helped at school one year; we had a six-year-old girl who’d been in & out of the social services’ system a couple of times already. I doubt she’d ever seen a book; she had no idea of color names, no concept of numbers or counting; she didn’t know left and right. It took months to teach her that her jacket was blue and white, that three items on a page were written 3, that if you add three balls: ooo and two balls: oo you get 5.

Someone told me I should give my elderly relative a children’s Bible story book; it would be easier for her to handle. But even these tend to have solid blocks of text, plus the illustrations are more suitable for a small child. Being handed a children’s book to read can be embarrassing for an older woman, so I’d like to find something that’s written for adults.

Last night as I was thinking about the many who have never learned to read well, and the need to present the Gospel to folks like that, my thoughts went back to Alice Kuipers’ book and suddenly it looked like a method we could use.

Life on the Refrigerator Door tells a poignant story in simple words. Could we use a Gospel on Scrolls or similar approach for the many who can’t follow complex sentences? Just a few notes per page with a lot of white space, simplifying the Good News Jesus came to share with us? (Note: not whiting out doctrines, but explaining them simply.)

Does such a book exist already? If so, where would I find it?

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4 thoughts on “Reaching Functionally Illiterate Adults

  1. adult literacy is a real problem. I read in the paper tonight that the BC Govt was cutting funding for adult literacy programs which is unfortunate. Life is difficult if you can’t read and write.

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    • I don’t know just what to think about government funding for adult literacy. For one thing, people who are functionally illiterate may never find out about govt programs — and they tend to be suspicious of govt anything. For another, a person’s pride keeps him from admitting in the first place that he can’t read or figure something out.

      Trust can be an issue, too. For example I helped my friend yesterday by showing her how to put which coins in the slot at the coin-op washing machine. But she wouldn’t have asked someone she didn’t know and trust.

      And what about schools going back to teaching children to read? Otherwise we’re going to have a lot of people who have come through the school system — on taxpayer dollars –that now need more taxpayer dollars to fund their adult learning programs. I hardly know what to think of that. But when teachers can no longer grade or fail children for lack of learning because it would damage the child’s self-esteem, there’s no incentive to learn. I think that’s a big part of the problem we’re facing today.

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