Two years into the United Nations Literacy Decade, educators have been tackling the problem of illiteracy where many assumed it wasn't a problem: in Germany.
How do you find a job if you can't read or write?
Although attending school until the age of 16 is mandatory in Germany, around 4 million people here are still functional illiterates. They may have gone to school for years, but they read and write so poorly that it's hard for them to lead a normal life.
"When one takes as a basis the fact alone that in Germany each year 80,000 secondary school pupils leave school without a diploma, it's certainly an alarming number," according to Monika Tröster of the German Institute for Adult Education. "Among this group there are many who can't read and write well enough. If one hasn't learned reading in the first two school years, there's no more chance to really make up for it."
Illiteracy was long ignored in Germany or dismissed as a problem in poorer, less developed countries. Indeed, most of the world's 800 million illiterates live in developing countries. But particularly since the PISA studies carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that pupils here lag far behind their peers in other highly developed countries, educators and the public have realized that many schoolchildren find it tough to write correct German.
If children don't learn to read and write early on, they may not be able to catch up later
And schools and teachers can't do much to help, which they are usually aware of, according to Jürgen Genuneit of the German illiteracy association Bundesverband Alphabetisierung.
"Pupils feel like they've been written off and they also get written off. No one attends to their problems anymore," Genuneit explained. "In the worst case, the teacher makes a deal with the pupil: If you don't disturb me, I won't disturb you. But school are also too overextended to start again in the 6th, 7th or 8th grade to teach pupils reading."
For most illiterates, the problems really start once they've left school. They find it hard to apply for jobs or even read bus schedules or check their bank statements. Along with such daily difficulties, their sense of shame often grows. Few people are willing to admit they can't write.
So they devise tricks to hide their weaknesses. Genuneit told of a woman who worked in a kitchen for years but managed to avoid revealing her illiteracy.
When the boss came for her to write out the shopping list, she put her finger in the deep-fryer so she had a big blister. Or she quickly grabbed the trash bag and took out the trash. Those examples show what one is willing to do so no one discovers that one can't read or write."
Getting beyond shame
The United Nations Literacy Decade, launched in 2003, may also shed more light on the issue in Germany. Since it started, the Alliance for Alphabetization and Basic Education was set up by numerous educational groups to track down and help people who are illiterate. Their Internet project, Apoll, runs a Web site financed by the education ministry where people can learn to read and write.
"The advantages that we have with the use of the Internet are: It doesn't matter when I learn, how long I learn or where I learn," explained educator Martin Ragg from Apoll. "That means that an adult functional illiterate can decide himself how long he wants to study. What's very important is that we have much more traffic from people who want to remain anonymous. They only have to give a nickname to get a password from us. They're coached by online-tutors and can start to learn immediately, without revealing their identity."
The UN Literacy Decade aims to halve the number of illiterates worldwide by 2015. There's much to be done to reach that goal -- even in Germany.