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open door

Thousands of Irish people struggle with reading - but hide it

A new project aims at helping them – all thanks to author Patricia Scanlan.
“They can go to great lengths to cover [their literacy problems] up and hide it from family and friends” – Clare McNally, NALA

THOUSANDS OF people across Ireland struggle with being able to read, and some go to massive efforts to hide it.

As part of the drive to help people improve their literacy, authors like Roddy Doyle and Colette Caddell have written books for the Open Door series, which was conceived by author Patricia Scanlan and is published by New Island books.

There are around 50,000 adults attending adult literacy programmes around the country, and the National Adult Literacy Agency said that people can go to great lengths to hide the fact they are struggling.

What’s different?

What’s special about these novellas is that they’re aimed at people who are improving their literacy, but they don’t ‘look like’ a book for learners.

Patricia Scanlan Patricia Scanlan

Mariel Deegan of New Island explained that Patricia came up with the idea when working in the library service.

She wrote a piece for the in-house literacy group, got “incredible feedback”, then approached publisher Edwin Higel of New Island, who published the story.

Open Door

There are five to six books per Open Door series, and some of them have been translated into Irish or audiobook.

They tend to be novella-size – around 10,000 words – use short sentences, simple words (with some challenging words), a small number of well-developed characters, and a clear storyline and narrative.

“They’re not patronising,” said Deegan.

Even if you have no problem reading, you’d enjoy these stories. The idea is the packaging would not be patronising. It doesn’t shout out ‘I am a literacy book’.

It is similar to the UK’s Quick Reads, which are also aimed at people who find reading difficult. Open Door was launched before Quick Reads, but both are aimed at making reading accessible to all.


“Unlike the Quick Reads, they are distinctively Irish,” said Deegan. “And mainly they are original – they are not simmered down versions of something else - they’re mainly novels. We have had a few non-fiction things before as well.”

The books are used by literacy groups, but also by people who are learning English.

Struggling with reading

Clare McNally, spokesperson for NALA, said that according to the most recent OECD Adult Skills Survey, almost 18% – one in six – Irish adults are at or below the lowest level of the literacy scale.

This means that the person may be unable to read basic text – they might not be able to write their own names. There are many reasons why people have literacy and numeracy difficulties, like:

  • Having to leave school early – missing school through illness
  • Not finding learning relevant to their needs
  • Being part of a large class and not having specific needs catered for
  • The teaching methods in school didn’t suit the student’s learning style
  • Being in a job that did not require using literacy skills – getting out of practice

“Literacy is like a muscle. You need to use it regularly or your skills weaken,” she explained. “Learning is a life long process. If you don’t use reading and writing skills every day you can get out of practice.”

For example, if a person left school before junior cert and didn’t have to practise their reading and writing skills in their work, they could easily get out of practice and lose confidence in their ability to use those skills.

Literacy issues can affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds.



There is a stigma attached to low literacy and numeracy skills, with people sometimes feeling too embarrassed to admit to their problems.

They can even “go to great extremes to hide their difficulties from their friends and family”, said McNally.

Because some people may have had bad experiences at school, adult education isn’t exams-orientated, but is about addressing the needs of the learner.

“I think we are breaking down the stigma,” said McNally. “There’s a lot of work being done in this area around the country.”

She added that it is “never too late to return to learning”, with options including online study or learning at your local adult education centre. “Everything is free. You decide what you want to learn, where you want to learn and when you want to learn,” she said.

“Those books are the ideal size and level for someone to advance their reading,” said McNally. “You get a sense of achievement when you finish a book.”

If you need to find out more just call the National Adult Literacy Agency support line 1800 20 20 65, free text LEARN to 50050. The books are available in bookshops, or through libraries or adult literacy services like NALA.

Read: Roddy Doyle’s latest project was launched in the most fitting way>

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