Write Stuff – First Words

Some of us hit the books early, thanks to Baby Einstein and Dr. Seuss. Others started a little later, hitting their stride with series like Goosebumps. But what about those who never learned to read, and still struggle with basics like the words on their cereal box?or even their own names? As these inspiring stories show, It’s never too late to learn those first words.

Ed Bray was a young man when he and his fellow soldiers stormed the beaches at Normandy. He earned two Purple Hearts for his bravery, was married and held jobs, but through it all carried a surprising secret: he didn’t know how to read. As this CBS News video shows, he couldn’t even read the words on the many medals he’s received.

His wife and coworkers helped him conceal the fact, but at the age of 89 he decided enough was enough. ?I want to read one book before I die,? he explains in the video. Early in 2013, with the help of Professor Tobi Thompson, Bray achieved his goal. The first book he read was a biography of George Washington.

Bray isn’t the only adult who’s struggled long and hard with illiteracy. Not only does the problem affect people’s earning potential, it also has a direct effect on their health. According to ABC News, ?a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed patients who had difficulty reading prescriptions were 50 percent more likely to die from disease than patients who were literate.?

This could mean that nearly half of adult Canadians are putting their health at risk. A 2003 government survey found that 52 per cent of Canadians over 16 ?had literacy scores in the Level 3 category or above.? Level 3 literacy is the minimum level ?required to function well at work and in daily living.? Next time You’re at work or the mall, look around you. Odds are that about half the adults you see would not be able to read a prescription bottle well enough to understand what they were taking.

But much like Ed Bray, other adults well into their senior years have worked hard to read those first words. Like Gabriel Lavoie, a former truck driver from Quebec who learned to read in his seventies. As Lavoie says in this article, he spent years eating the same meal twice a day; each time he went into a restaurant he would simply order the special, rather than reveal that he couldn’t read the menu.

And Jim Arruda Henry, who learned to read at 92, took things even further. He went on to become a first-time author at 98 with his memoir, In a Fisherman’s Language.

There are still a few weeks left to enjoy summer, but when the back-to-school sales start, don’t forget that kids aren’t the only ones who can get excited about hitting the books. If you know an adult who needs a hand, two great places to start are ABC Life Literacy Canada and ProLiteracy.

Because It’s never too late to savour those first words.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).