Last Night's TV: Why it's wrong to write them off

Can't Read, Can't Write, Channel 4; Dragons' Den, BBC2
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Not being able to read is, at least as far as I'm concerned, unimaginable, and since you're here, I'm guessing that you're in the same boat, or, to put it more cogently, we're reading from the same page. Try spending even a few minutes pretending you can't read, and see how far you get. Words beckon at you from every side – the newspaper discarded next to you on the bus or the train, posters, computer screens, television screens, text messages on your mobile, street signs and shop signs and the labels on the sandwiches you buy for lunch. To be unable to read is, in fundamental ways, to be shut out of the world.

In Can't Read, Can't Write, Phil Beadle ("Britain's most famous teacher"), has been set the task of teaching adults to read. He asked his pupils to pin down what it is like not being able to read. Theresa, a 58-year-old mother of 10 who has somehow managed to keep her illiteracy from most of her family, did best, comparing the written word to a "big black spider", spindly and terrifying. She went down to the shops to buy some bits and pieces, such as ham. One of her daughters helpfully wrote down the words in large, clear letters, so she could match them up to the labels on the shelves. She came back in tears, and without the ham. Meanwhile, young James sat in a cafe, looking down the menu, confessing that the only word he could recognise was "egg". At school, he'd spent much of his time sat in a corner with wordsearches to keep him occupied. Then there was Linda, who was 46 and had already accumulated an impressive library, against the day when she would be able to use it. She explained that for her the letters on the page just didn't correlate with the sounds they were supposed to make. "Correlate"? Whatever was preventing Linda reading, it didn't have much to do with words or intelligence.

The most moving moment in the first programme came when Beadle, having diagnosed Linda as a "kinaesthetic" learner, one who needs touch and feel to guide her, laid out plastic shapes on the floor, lines and curves, for her to form letters. Having been driven to tears of frustration by her inability to grasp basic phonics in the classroom, she suddenly found that once she could feel the shapes of the letters, it all made sense. But there were other moments to get you groping around for a Kleenex. Theresa, given a little attention, leapt ahead. On a trip to the shops, she showed off what she'd learned. "Huh... am – ham. Muh... arze. Mars." Within a couple of weeks, she was reading picture books along with her grandchildren; and you had to wonder what had gone wrong, that something she took to so easily should have been a big black spider for the best part of 60 years.

Successes like these were, perhaps, all the justification the programme needed, in televisual and educational terms. But along the way, it was often maddening, trying to turn a complex set of problems into a race against time (have you ever thought how much television could be improved by the simple expedient of banning the phrase "With just days to go..."), and into Maverick Phil Against the System. I've no doubt that government guidelines on adult literacy leave a lot to be desired, but Phil Beadle's ill-natured dismissal didn't seem like the kind of approach liable to bring about change. If this programme proved anything, it was that the causes of illiteracy are multifarious: simple phonics worked wonders for Theresa, but not Linda or James. When they tried plastic shapes, Linda leapt ahead, but James was still floundering. And in any case, all these people were getting one-to-one attention in a way that is impossible within the public sector without major changes in funding. Eliminating adult literacy involves a lot of basic organisational challenges – how you pay for it, how you find the teachers to do it, how you ensure that people who can't read find out about it. Beadle's constant tutting and sighing and clutching his brow and telling us how passionate he was didn't scratch the surface.

Dragons' Den is in many ways an awful programme. First, it seems to illustrate the shallowness and fragility of the British economy. Only two ideas attracted any investors last night, both in the fickle entertainment sector. One was a rock group whose quest for a new funding model showed more imagination than their music did, the other was a company that hires out human tables and trees, women who are paid to stand still under a covering of paint or foliage. Manufacturing didn't figure. Second, the programme is founded on the notion that watching people having their life's dream spat on by the extremely rich is a source of entertainment. What's really awful is that this turns out to be true: the humiliation heaped on the man plugging "lay lines", a seam bisecting your bed-linen, so that you know if your sleeping partner is taking up more than their share of the bed was both vastly amusing and well-earned. All that money being flashed around, and I feel so cheap.