The Write Offs, is a programme on Channel 4 made by Shine TV.  It focuses on adults with Dyslexia and poor literacy skills, demonstrating how this impacts individuals, their strategies and need for support and help, to manage everyday tasks in life and work, which require literacy skills. It aims to show how, with intervention, adults can also develop reading and spelling skills later in life. The programme is presented by Sandi Toksvig and aired on September 22nd 2020 at 9.30pm on Channel 4, over a period of two 60 minute episodes.

Summer 2019, an email from Shine TV arrived in my inbox, inviting me to take part in a new Channel 4 series about adults with Dyslexia and poor literacy skills.

I initially approached the email with some scepticism, unsure how sensitively Shine TV would deal with the subject matter. There are lots of TV programmes around that can very often miss the point and ultimately not portray the information sensitively.  If there’s one thing I knew, sensitivity was the key to making the programme a success and highlighting the fact that many adults today still leave school unable to gain a GCSE in English. Many in fact struggle to gain entry level qualifications. Many struggle to be able to complete everyday tasks which require reading and spelling.

Many readers will know that we have come to realise the school leavers of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80s have poor literacy skills.  It might come as a surprise to some, even today, a 16 year old is barely able to access the curriculum in school, as they’re reading and spelling equivalent to that of an age 6, 7, 8 year old. Before I have the whole education and teaching profession up in arms, I do know that our schools employ amazing teachers who are dedicated professionals.  I don’t apportion blame to the profession, there are a multitude of reasons why individuals leave school unable to have a functional level of literacy. I simply state the facts and know that something is still going wrong, for some individuals, in our education and social care system.

Over the years, I have worked with children and adults. Some of those left school in the 1960s, 70’s, 80’s- some are still in school today. I not only work with the child but the whole family, as often, the children today have well informed parents who  know their child needs to gain additional support. I support the parents in making applications to get the support.  Decades ago, parents simply assumed their child was in school and therefore learning. There were also many employment opportunities for all levels of education.  Leaving school and getting a job, up until the 1980s, didn’t require as many academic qualifications and most could walk into jobs and never really need literacy skills or could ‘get away with it’. Today, employers require minimum skills levels and GCSEs.  Rightly so.  Many years ago I completed an ESF project and local employers stated their key concern then, back in 1999, was the lack of basic skills in school leavers.

I digress, following a chat with Shine TV I felt the project they had in mind would really highlight the need for adult education today, for present school leavers and those who’d left school many years ago.  I agreed to take part in the programme.  My role was to tutor one of the eight contributors, all of whom had put themselves forward for the project.  Shine TV would film their progress, to show what type of intervention could be provided. The contributors received one to one tuition,  then experience some tasks to challenge them, requiring them to use their literacy skills.  As you’ll have seen in The Write Offs, the individuals were asked to complete everyday challenges, such as use public transport, make a shopping list, shop, read a recipe.  These tasks helped to highlight the everyday tasks, that we take for granted, and yet are a daily challenge if you don’t have the basic literacy skills.

We started to film in September 2019 and throughout the filming process, maintained very regular contact with the contributors we were mentoring. .  Receiving intervention and support later in life, can have a huge emotional impact on an individual. Individuals start to notice changes in themselves, they can also mourn the person they wanted to be earlier in life but felt barred from achieving due to poor literacy skills and it may also bring up very raw and negative experiences in education and employment. Support was available throughout the process and production continue to stay in regular contact with the contributors.

I didn’t get to meet Tommy, until the day of assessment.  We had a quick chat the day before on the phone to quickly introduce ourselves. Tommy told me he was 66, with tattoos, an earring and a life long Vale fan (Port Vale Football Club).  He was a local man and worked for the GMB Union.  Straight away, I knew Tommy and I would gel.  Years ago I’d gone to university to study industrial relations and law and wanted to work for the unions representing members in employment tribunals.

The next day the film crew turned up at my office and I finally got to meet Tommy. He immediately walked through the door and gave me a hug. We got to know each other a little, by going through a background interview form, where I chatted with Tommy about his education and work experience. It often quickly becomes a very emotive discussion for adults, as they reflect on past experiences.  I feel Tommy and all the candidates were immensely brave to go through the process of the programme and be filmed along the way. Immediately, I felt a great affinity with Tommy and was in awe of his open and frank approach, yet I knew it was emotional for him. 

I was extremely nervous, I hadn’t had a chance to evaluate Tommy’s level of attainment in literacy or any of his education experiences. I didn’t know how sensitive this subject would be for him.  I knew he was likely to be far more nervous than I. He was walking in to meet his tutor for the first time, in a new environment, facing a fear of learning again. I knew he’d most likely had some negative experiences of education and feel anxious himself.  On top of this, the whole experience was going to be filmed. It was going to be a nerve-wracking experience for us both.  I applauded Tommy’s bravery for facing his fear. 

We chatted about his goals and aims for the future and very soon, we forgot about the cameras in the room as we started to relax and get to learn more about each other. I say learn about each other, as I feel it’s so very important to develop an adult working relationship, where we are on an equal par, often learning from each other. In almost every case, I find something new about myself, the way I teach and how I can improve on the learner’s experience.  It’s great to work with articulate people such as Tommy, they feel safe to tell me how it is, what works and what doesn’t.  No matter how many years I’ve been teaching, there is also something new to learn.

A few years earlier, Tommy had in fact been awarded the MBE for his work raising awareness of adult literacy, so he was keen to help raise awareness, yet his feelings around literacy were still raw. He was (and is) a great friendly character, passionate about The Vale, his friends and family and his work in the union, supporting others.  It had however, taken him years to tell his employers about his struggles.  It was a secret he’d once kept for many years.

Courtesy of The Sentinel Newspaper

I later learned more about Tommy’s story which has touched the hearts of all of us involved in the programme. 

Like so many others, he had kept it a secret from his employers, until one day he blurted it out. Now he offers motivational talks, where he tells people about his early life, struggles and how Dyslexia and literacy difficulties has impacted him, not only in regard to literacy.

After the evaluating Tommy’s kills, we went into a teaching session. I’d prepared a few ideas based on some basic information the production company had told me following the contributors having their literacy levels independently assessed.   Tommy dealt with this so well and was open to try everything.

We needed to go straight into teaching as the project aimed to measure how much progress could be made in the space of a few months. Of course, I knew in reality that trying to make up for years of missed teaching wouldn’t happen in a few months but I knew I could make a difference. Tommy was clearly keen, dedicated and committed.

During this initial meeting, I got to see how Tommy responded to the way I taught and he had an opportunity to see how I worked.  Again, the bravery he showed entering into this situation was enormous.  It was wonderful to see Tommy have his first ‘light-bulb’ moment in that first session.  In the programme, you’ll see the way in which I work, using my programme CodeBreakers and how very quickly Tommy gained confidence. This confidence impacted across his life and showed how he could make changes because his literacy skills were developing.

We were both exhausted after the initial meeting. It’s really rather strange having a camera that close up as you’re teaching After filming ended that day, we sat down with a cuppa to have a chat.  Tommy is such a great chatty character and conversation flowed so well.

When working with adults especially, I feel it’s such an important factor to get to know them.  It’s usually taken years of building up courage to be able to get to the point of looking for help and it’s not always there. Sometimes it is there, then lack of funding and attendance means college funded course can often close down.  Years ago I worked for a charity which provided basic skills to long term unemployed adults.  This was funded by the DWP. Unfortunately, the focus was on job search rather than education.  The length of course and gap in learning time never really targeted the students’ literacy needs.

Working one to one is  a great privileged, learning about the individual’s motivation and interests enables me to really individually tailor their learning.  I had a great opportunity to do this with Tommy.  Knowing his likes enabled me to use target key words which I knew he’d recognise and show him how to link them to other words.  Such as knowing he is a huge fan of The Vale (football), I knew he’d recognise the word ‘sky’ from Sky Sports.  From this, I taught him that ‘y’ said LV /i/ and explored other words with this sound in. Of course, there are lots of other techniques I used from the programme I’ve written, CodeBreakers.

Over the months working with Tommy, Shine TV came to film us as Tommy received his lessons. I saw Tommy on average 4 hrs per week over a period of 4 months, so approximately 64 hrs of teaching for the whole project.  It sounds a lot, although if you think on average each sound and it’s over learning opportunities takes around 90 minutes to complete, there’s a lot to cover in not a lot of time.  Some of this time would also be mentoring.  When working with an individual, I have to and quite naturally want to, ensure their mental well-being.  There were times when Tommy would question if at his age it was worth it, was he progressing, would he ever progress to the level to which he compared himself to others.  In addition, we also spoke about assistive technology. An individual often wants to improve their literacy skills but it’s not a quick fix which is going to happen in the space of a few months.  To do it well and ensure a learner retains the information long-term it’s about creating opportunities to over learn, to ensure learning sticks, most of all it’s about taking it at the learner’s pace.

Although assistive technology can never replace learning to read and spell, it certainly does have its place. Especially in the workplace.  I spoke with Tommy about how he could use assistive technology in the workplace to make work more efficient and relieve stress related to literacy in the workplace.

When I first met Tommy, one thing struck me immediately.  I felt he didn’t always pronounce words correctly, I noticed he clearly hadn’t heard words correctly and wasn’t repeating them correctly. If he hadn’t heard them correctly, I knew he wouldn’t be able to sound out words to spell them.  It also meant he perhaps might struggle to acquire knew vocabulary and probably he would struggle to match the words he read with the words he’d heard.  I knew straight away the first thing I needed to ask Tommy was about his hearing.  I also felt there was a possibility he might have an auditory processing difficulty (APD).  I asked Tommy to make an appointment with his GP and also talked about auditory processing difficulties and suggested we ask his GP to refer him for a specialist assessment with audiology.  This in fact revealed Tommy had always had some hearing difficulties and APD, for which he received help from the hospital. You can read more about APD on my website.

I was initially concerned about what type of tasks the production company would set as challenges for  the learners to complete, in addition to tuition.  These involved travelling all over the UK and as tutors, we were able to advise Shine if we felt things were too challenging for the contributors. I think the tasks given truly show everyday tasks can be challenging.

Tommy was especially proud of himself when he got to make the chicken pie, in the first episode.  He’d wanted to learn to cook for years but the struggle to read meant he couldn’t follow the recipe. He was even happier when Prue Leith, of Bake Off fame, told him he’d make an exceptional job of his pie.

One of his personal goal was to write letters to thank the people in his life who had helped him along the way.  As you will see in the first episode, Sandi Toksvig joined Tommy in a surprise ceremony at work, where he read out one of his letters to thank his colleagues and friends.  I know this was an emotional event for him.  The whole production team loved working with Tommy and learning his story was emotional for them too. 

Tommy shows how decoding words can feel

In a few short months, Tommy and I became great friends. I am naturally a people person. I always like to feel it’s not a teacher and student relationship but one of two adults meeting where yes, I’m showing the individual what I know about reading and spelling but at the same time, I can learn so much about their world of work and experiences. I feel it is so important that I make my ‘students’ feel comfortable and relaxed, not like they are coming to class. A relaxed learner who feels safe to make mistakes will always feel confident to have a go and push beyond their ‘comfort zone’.  Confidence is often the key.  For all of us, no matter what we are learning to do new, we have old, bad habits that are comfortable and safe which we default to, although they are not always the right choice. This stems a lot from self-esteem, something which I’m really passionate about supporting in others. Having gone on my own journey I’ve written many articles on my blog about it called #Mindful Dyslexia

Tommy decided to continue with lesson which he funded himself, unfortunately Covid 19 and the lock down meant we could not continue.  However, we stayed in touch and text weekly and chat on the phone for a catch up every few weeks.  Now that things are slowly changing, Tommy has decided to start lessons again and is ready to try working online when he gets his new laptop.

See Why Tommy meets Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet in episode 2, Channel 4 29/9/2020. Read my next blog about episode 2…coming soon


Tommy and I hope to continue to raise awareness of adult literacy and literacy in the workplace.  For all media contacts please contact:

Watch “The Write Offs” HERE

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

Video 4

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) state: It is estimated 15% of the population have Dyslexia

As well as meeting your obligations under the Equality Act 2010, supporting your employees makes good business sense.

Effective changes don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, often small organisational changes can help to get the very best from your employee.

It’s worth keeping in mind that any changes you make to your way of working can benefit all employees, not just those with dyslexia, and may also benefit your dyslexic customers and clients.

Links:  Access to WorkAccess to Work is a publicly funded employment support programme that aims to help more disabled people start or stay in work. It can provide practical and financial support if you have a disability or long term physical or mental health condition.  An Access to Work grant can pay for practical support to help you:

  • start working
  • stay in work
  • move into self-employment or start a business

*Note: Dyslexia is covered by this fund and you may not necessarily need a diagnosis to gain funding.

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