I told my kids I was too tired to read to them – one man’s battle with words

Peter Ferraro spent most of his life trying to hide the fact he couldn’t read. But feeling he had let his family down gave him the spur he needed to get help – at 52 years old – and now he’s tackling classic novels. He describes what literacy means to him

My reading difficulties started with a childhood accident that made it hard for me to learn to talk. I didn’t speak until I was four or five years old. I think this stopped me learning as fast as others. There weren’t special reading classes at school back then; I didn’t get any help and got left behind.

’Cos I wasn’t learning a lot – I just acted up which got me chucked out of class and schools! Going from one school to the other didn’t help.

World Book Day: Sharing a story about sharing a story

Mum and Dad helped me by getting me into different schools, but they just weren’t the right ones. The last school was a special needs school – that was just what I needed. There, I couldn’t get kicked out so I had to knuckle down. Also the teachers there weren’t looking down on you and that made a difference to me.

I kept it from my kids, because I wanted to be the adult

I really enjoyed baking and so I went to do a City & Guilds course. I found the academic side so hard for months until a teacher noticed that I was struggling. He took me to one side and asked me if I was having difficulties reading and writing. That was really hard for me to admit to a stranger, but it was the turning point. He put classes on tape and at the exam read me the questions verbally and I could answer verbally. I got my City & Guilds!

My wife knew that I had difficulty reading, but I kept it from my kids, because I wanted to be the adult. I thought, “It should be me learning them, not the other way round”. I used to tell the kids that I was too tired to read to them or I couldn’t find my glasses.

THE POVERTY OF ILLITERACY

Without good literacy skills, people can find themselves playing catch-up throughout their life – statistics show it impacts hugely on health, income and life chances in general

  • Illiteracy costs the UK £81.3bn per year
  • People with poor literacy skills earn 12 per cent less than those with good skills
  • At age three, children in the UK’s lowest income group have language skills that are on average 17 months behind those in the highest. By age five, the gap has stretched to 19 months
  • In England, 5.1 million adults don’t have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old child
  • UK men with low literacy levels are twice as likely to smoke than those with high literacy skills
  • Good levels of education reduce the risk of adult depression by 5-6 per cent. Recent research showed significant improvements in the mental health of depressed
    people after attending reading groups for a year
  • Half of the UK’s 85,000 prisoners have a reading age of 11 or lower – making them functionally illiterate

When my brother Garry got married, he gave me their wedding vows for me to read, but I couldn’t. I pretended to read them and gave them back. I felt sad, embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t say anything back to him, as all the family were there. My brother knew I was having difficulties reading and now he knows that I am having reading lessons and is really pleased for me. When Garry and I Skype now, he asks how my reading lessons are going. He lives in South Africa so we haven’t met up since I started reading lessons, but we are planning to meet up later this year.

What are libraries for?

It was not being able to read my brother’s wedding vows and struggling with job applications that made me want to better myself. I had been looking for adult reading classes for some time, but they were just not local and not right for me. One day at the job centre, I asked the man there if he could help and he came up with a ReadEasy leaflet with the phone number. And that was it really…

Not being able to read affects every part of your life

At first, it was easy to start to learn to read as I knew some words from all around me on shops, street signs and advertising boards. I have a good memory and over the years I’d built up a large collection of words in my head to help me match up with what I saw. However, 14 months into classes it is getting harder as I am coming across new words not in my memory, but I am learning them very quickly. I can recognise the root of the word and go from there.

Not being able to read affects every part of your life, the point I find most frustrating, most aggravating and most unfair is this: At the job centre, they don’t class not being able to read as a disability – that is a disadvantage because you have to apply for a job anyway – how can you use the computer, fill in the forms and everything without being able to read them?

Peter - illiteracy
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Peter with brother Garry

Before reading a book, I prepare by looking at the movie, using subtitles to follow the plot. I can slow the subtitles down or pause. I then get the idea of plot, storyline, characters, names, places and how to pronounce words.

When I started reading classes I got hold of a series of classic books published in a shortened version. I really got into them and read about four or five one after another, Dracula, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The War of the Worlds and Robinson Crusoe.

But my favourite book is A Christmas Carol by Dickens – I have been fascinated by the movie for ages, I love the storyline and the book is very similar to the film so I found it easy to follow. I had to read it slowly and in small chunks. I started in August and aimed to finish it by Christmas Day! Even if I had to stay up the night before, I was determined to finish it by Christmas. My reading really means a lot to me.