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Swiss school offers reading classes for adults

Reading a newspaper is not a simple task for everybody swissinfo.ch

More than 100,000 people in canton Bern do not know how to read and write properly, but only 400 are tackling the problem.

This content was published on November 26, 2003 - 11:00

swissinfo spoke to Rosita Della Morte, the head of the Bern branch of the Read and Write organisation, which offers literacy classes to adults.

swissinfo: One in six people in Switzerland are unable to read or write well despite having attended school for the obligatory nine years. How can you explain such a shortcoming?

Rosita Della Morte: There is not a lot to explain. But we have noticed that the people who sign up for our courses have very little practice in reading and writing. Sometimes they have simply forgotten how to read or write.

swissinfo: How do you reach your target group?

R.D.M.: That’s the big problem. We put adverts in papers and try to advertise in clubs, schools and other public places.

swissinfo: What sorts of people attend your courses?

R.D.M.: About 30 per cent are aged between 25 and 35, another third are between 35 and 45 years and the rest are either very young or elderly people.

We get parents who want to help their children with their homework but we also get people who have been relocated at work due to restructuring measures and need better writing skills. These people often have to work with a computer or write reports.

But being faced with the latest technology also has positive aspects for them. They start using the internet or write emails. I think this interest helps them learn how to read better.

swissinfo: What social group do most of your students belong to?

R.D.M.: Most of them are from a working class background. According to our statistics, 50 per cent of them finished their apprenticeship and have a few years of vocational school behind them. Very few of them finished secondary school.

The dean of a vocational school told me that his students had a lot of technical knowledge but their reading and writing skills were pretty poor.

swissinfo: Should this problem be tackled at school?

R.D.M.: We are no experts on prevention but we support organisations that are working to prevent illiteracy. The PISA study has triggered a few action plans. Last autumn we were able to do a presentation at a school conference, which would have been impossible a few years ago due to lack of interest.

swissinfo: The problem has only been recognised in the past ten years, but it must have been around for a lot longer.

R.D.M.: We have run adult reading and writing courses for 16 years, but we know that the problem has been around for much longer and it will probably be around in the future as well.

I don’t think all of those affected by illiteracy would go on a course. There are many people who have sufficient skills to function normally in their jobs, even though they are unable to read or write well. Those people normally don’t need a course.

swissinfo: Why does illiteracy exist?

R.M.D.: The family situation is one of many reasons. If parents are unable to convince their children that studying is important or if they do not set a good example, it is less likely the children will be interested in reading and writing. Difficult situations, such as alcohol or violence in the family, are other reasons.

Another problem is teachers who don’t pay enough attention to pupils with needs. It sometimes happens that a teacher notices a reading or writing problem in a child but doesn’t do anything about it.

swissinfo-interview: Gaby Ochsenbein (translation: Billi Bierling)

In brief

One in six people in Switzerland are unable to read or write well.

Rosita del Morte of the Bern branch of the Read and Write organisation says most people who come to the classes have little practice in reading and writing.

Most people who attend the organisation's classes are parents unable to help their children with homework or people who have been relocated at work and need better writing skills.

Del Morte says sometimes school teachers fail to address reading and wrting problems in their pupils.

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