My interest in adult literacy was sparked far from Tasmania. I’d been working in Vietnam – a highly literate country where the most lowly paid, disadvantaged cyclo driver would pass his time reading the newspaper – and then moved to Solomon Islands, where my neighbour asked me to teach her to read because she wanted to be sure no one would take advantage of her. The contrast between those two societies was extreme, and it led me, through the study of linguistics, to look at the preconditions for a literate society and at how people learn to read.

After years working overseas, I was surprised to discover that adults in my own country shared the challenges faced by my Solomon Islands friends. I first saw this through work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Tasmania, when I heard from exporters that a lack of workers with suitable literacy was limiting their chance to expand.

I came to understand that, while there are many reasons why a person can reach adulthood with low literacy – disadvantage, childhood illness, disrupted schooling, learning difficulties – the problem is compounded by advances in technology that have made literacy more crucial today than ever before. A person who may have been able to get by in life with low skills several decades ago – dealing face-to-face and over the counter, rather than online – now needs help, particularly when the requirements of their job change or a partner who has attended to the family or business paperwork is no longer on the scene.

These are real people, whom we all know in our small community. Helping them to have better literacy and numeracy will make a difference for all of us, and we all have a role to play.

When I got the chance to come to work for LINC Tasmania in 2014, my goal was to ensure that the extraordinary commitment this state has made, with tripartisan support, to raising adult literacy, achieved results. And I am confident that 26TEN, Tasmania’s strategy to engage business, community, government and individuals to have a collective impact on literacy and numeracy levels, and LINC Tasmania’s statewide adult literacy service, which is part of that collective effort, are changing lives every day.

Few realise how lucky we are in Tasmania to have a statewide public library service that is unique in giving all adults access to individualised literacy and numeracy learning. The service was established under the Tasmanian Adult Literacy Action Plan in 2010. Seven literacy coordinators were initially placed in urban libraries, with a further fifteen joining them in regional areas around the state, in Risdon Prison and in community corrections, in 2012. Today the service is supported by Managers, administrative staff, customer service officers, and our 26TEN library collection which contains material specifically chosen for emerging readers.

Importantly, it is also supported by a pool of over 800 trained volunteers who work one-to-one with clients who need help to improve their skills.

LINC Tasmania has always had the advantage of being a welcoming and friendly community space well-placed to engage adults who need support. Our recent focus has been on ensuring our volunteer workforce and coordinators are providing the highest quality literacy learning, based on strong evidence, so that all clients get the knowledge, skills and practice they need they need to read, write and communicate better.

We use the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF) to assess our clients and to map learning needs and we place a special focus on adult learning principles – making learning relevant and practical, acknowledging prior experience, setting meaningful goals, encouraging self-directed learning and encouraging self-reflection.

We are also working to make sure that our coordinators and volunteers use approaches based on evidence to ensure learners build all the foundational elements they need to become an efficient reader and writer: oral Language, phonological awareness, letter-sound knowledge (phonics), vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Australia’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading in 2005 identified the first five of these elements and more recently the importance of a sixth, oral language, which underpins all the other elements, has been included. The family literacy programs run in our libraries around the state, Rock and Rhyme and Story-time, are aimed at developing this early foundation skill that is so crucial to successful literacy learning.

It is rewarding to hear feedback from our clients who have taken the step to get support and are finding they are more confident, can support their children and engage better with their communities because their skills have improved. Our challenge is to make sure more people take advantage of the opportunities offered in this state to help people build their skills. We need to work together, through the collective effort that 26TEN can drive, to spread the word that it is possible to build your skills, and change your life.

Anita Planchon is Manager of Strategy and Engagement at LINC Tasmania. She has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on multilingualism and second and subsequent language acquisition, and a career history as a diplomat with postings in Vietnam, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. Here, Anita writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.

Something to think about: What would life be like for you if reading was hard for you?