*(c) Thor May 1997. All rights reserved 

Note: This letter was sent to The Australian  
(newspaper) on 17 September 1997 in order to 
assist informed community debate. Nobody has  
a monopoly of wisdom on issues as complex as 
this one..

. To e-mail Thor May, please click here 

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(c) Thor May 1997. All rights reserved [go to end]*
Dear Sir,

Are we being unreasonable about national literacy expectations? Is it a case of getting what you pay for? I believe it is.

It is a law of learning that for any given skill, a small percentage of individuals will learn easily, and with a minimal input of resources may excel. Many more learners will acquire adequate skill with a respectable input of time and effort, but will never be champions. Another section of the population will need a large investment of time and attention to achieve even survival standard in that skill.

These learning abilities are always mixed in an individual. The natural footballer may never play a violin well, and vice versa. Only a few happy souls are blessed with a cornucopia of talents.

We do not consider it a national crisis if 30%, or even 3% of people are not natural, gifted learners of music, mechanics, athletics or politics. For human intelligence, the ability to acquire literacy is unevenly distributed (even ignoring other social influences), just as it is with all talents. The difference is in application, for we now need reasonable literacy to function as successful human beings. Note however, that the abilities to read & write are very different from the abilities to talk and listen. Alone amongst human talents, almost everybody has a natural talent for learning to speak and to understand speech.

Only modest resources may be needed to render perhaps 70% of children and adults literate. If we wish the remaining 30% to enjoy some social equity -- and we should -- then a progressively larger investment of time and money will be needed to pull every last straggler into the lifeboat of literacy.

Conversely, cuts to literacy programs (as we have seen recently) will diminish the life opportunities of the weakest literacy students at a much greater rate than that suffered by the naturally able.

Yours sincerely,

Thor MAY (Mr.)

National Literacy*(c) Thor May 1997.

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