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Switzerland fights problem of illiteracy

Reading and writing is as confusing as interpreting alphabet soup for some Swiss swissinfo.ch

More than 600,000 people in Switzerland are unable to read and write properly, even though they have completed compulsory schooling.

This content was published on November 20, 2003 - 08:37

Recognising the scale of the problem, the Swiss education system offers literacy courses for adults.

Paula Z. was the oldest of several children growing up in a small village in canton Bern. Her mother was very young when she was born and had little time for her.

Paula had always excelled at maths at school, but writing and reading were hard work for her.

“My exercise book was always red with corrections. I remember not being able to spell ‘cow’ at school and everybody laughed at me,” Paula told swissinfo.

After her compulsory education was over, Paula went to a boarding school in western Switzerland.

She did not finish her training there because every time she had to write something she panicked and ran off.

Paula went on to work in various homes for children and became a team leader.

“Whenever I had to fill in a report I asked our interns to do it – that was how I hid my problem,” she said.

Private tuition

At the age of 28 Paula got married and went on to have three children. She told swissinfo that she never had problems helping her children with their homework. “I sometimes employed people to give my children private tuition.”

Paula has travelled a lot and has been to Russia and China. She even reads books, but she does not write at all.

“I would never have dared to write a sick note for my children as I would have been too embarrassed,” she said.

Only her closest family members know about her problem. “I am not actually scared of writing but of making silly mistakes.”

Paula had been contemplating doing something about this problem for quite some time but says she never found the right course – until she saw an advertisement for a reading and writing course on television.

“I have always had a good life, apart from my writing problem. I want to learn how to write so I will be able to write a postcard to my daughter,” she said.

Paula has been attending a reading and writing course for women since the beginning of this year and she says it feels good meeting people who have the same problem.

“This course has changed my life and has given me more self confidence.”

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein (translation: Billi Bierling)

In brief

According to a 1995 OECD study, 13 -19 per cent of the Swiss population are unable to read and write well.

The 2000 PISA study says that 20 per cent of young people are unable to understand a simple text.

Switzerland has now come up with an action plan to reduce the percentage of illiterate children.

The “Read and Write” organisation has been running courses for more than 15 years.

More than half of the participants have done vocational training and about five per cent have finished secondary school.

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