Atelier lecture avec Mots & Merveilles
Projects - 19 September 2018

« Illiteracy is Silent »

“It is important to talk about illiteracy. The more we talk about it, the more its taboos will be lifted, the more people will realize that they are not alone in this situation, and the more they will have knowledge of the existing answers.”
Caroll Weidich

2.5 MILLION. That’s the number of people today who are illiterate in France, namely, 7% of the scholarized population between the ages of 18 and 65. Decreed a major national cause in 2013, the fight against illiteracy is still mobilizing the abilities of people, businesses and associations.

Among these, the association Mots & Merveilles (Words & Wonders), is working in concert with Bibliothèques Sans Frontières in the area surrounding Aulnoye-Aymeries in the North of France, in order to approach new residents with the Ideas Box in affected rural zones. Talk below with Caroll Weidich, director of the association.

A little-known topic, invisible and perhaps ignored, illiteracy concerns people who were schooled in France but who do not yet master writing, reading and simple arithmetic. Not to be confused with illiteracy concerning people who never underwent schooling.

Among the multiple social causes of illiteracy, let’s focus on the socio-economic background, the familial environment or teaching methods unadapted to a student’s rhythm of learning. Let’s break it down with a few figures :

50 % are over 45 years old

51 % have a job

60.5 % are men

71 % of the people concerned spoke only French at age 5

Module vert de l'Ideas Box

The daily difficulties are numerous : to locate oneself on a map, order at a restaurant, take out money from an ATM machine, go shopping, to not know one’s birthday or age, or how to tell time or send emails. This makes social and professional integration very difficult, in addition to the transition to all things digital, the evolution of the job market and the dematerialization of administrative services, always pushing people towards more autonomy.

Very often, and shamefully, these people therefore use strategies of circumvention : forgotten glasses, wrist pain.

“Illiteracy is silent. When you have this difficulty, you don’t talk about it much, you hide it. It’s a reality: it’s easier to say, ‘I’m bad at math” or ‘I don’t know how to use technology’ than ‘I don’t know how to read or write.’”

Hence the importance of implementing actions of guidance and sensitivity to illiteracy near intermediary actors, like employment referents, teachers, social assistants or doctors.

“Certain patents don’t know, for example, how to read the given prescription. Once guided, they’re then oriented by health staff towards Mots & Merveilles.

We put an equal amount of actions in place for children. In nursery schools, for example, volunteers bring a suitcase of books for individual readings. Sometimes, it’s their parents who come to see us.”

With 17 employees and 291 volunteers, the association Mots & Merveilles is present in seven districts of the Sambre-Avesnois. In 2017, 754 people were involved, of which 678 were adults.

“For some, the book is a discovery; for others, it is an object of fear. The profiles of illiterate people are many: if there was only one profile, there would be an answer and there would be no more illiteracy.

I recently met a father who told me: ‘when my son comes home from school, I put a book on top of the refrigerator so that he doesn’t ruin it.’ Another mother, Marie-Agnès, was making her daughter copy the pages of the dictionary and of books when she was little, because she wanted her daughter to absolutely not end up like her. Some are afraid that their children learn to read and write because they fall into the other world…”

Photo des locaux de Mots & Merveilles

For ten years, Mots & Merveilles has been multiplying its grounds of action: prevention from the youngest age, individualized support of adults and children, volunteer trainings and art workshops.

“To go to the theater isn’t a simple cultural outing. A lot of the time, it’s an uphill battle. What is the show’s theme? What is the history of the place? How does one get there? What are the codes? They don’t have recall, for example. These exchanges are punctuated by Internet searches and writings. But above all, they express themselves: oral expression is essential to fight illiteracy. The more you enrich your vocabulary, the better you’re able to understand what you read. They have a very restricted vocabulary, so it’s necessary to put the meaning back in learning.

For many, to read and write is to communicate with the administration. If they don’t understand the emails they receive, that can push them away. Hence the importance of implementing cultural actions, allowing them to access pleasure.”

In the Hauts-de-France, illiteracy concerns over one in ten people. That’s twice as much as the average in France. Thanks to the support of the department of the North, of the Cultura Foundation and to the Crédit Agricole Foundation, the association Mots & Merveilles hosted an Ideas Box this summer to reach populations in rural zones and practice prevention and detection.

“In rural zones, the public isn’t mobile. The Ideas Box allows us to reach residents that it’s usually difficult for us to reach, mainly from the digital bias. This can obviously cause fear but it’s not a shame to not master it. To not know how to read or write is one: it’s lived as a failure, a taboo, a burden.

Technology allows us to attract more people, proud and curious to learn. It’s an entryway that will be much easier to push, to then, progressively, work on mastering basic knowledge with them.”

At the end of September, Mots & Merveilles will host a second Ideas Box, installed in the welcome and orientation center in Louvroil, led by Adoma. On the program: FLE courses (French as a Foreign Language), citizenship workshops and activities focused on the social and professional integration of resident migrants.

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