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The Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that almost half (46 per cent) of Australians over the age of 15 lack the minimum skills needed to meet the demands of everyday life and work. Basically, the number of functionally illiterate Australians is worryingly high.

Chris Stephen began his professional career in IT, studying math, physics, economics and law, and eventually finding work with a senior lawyer in one of the country’s leading law firms.

“We set up electronic information systems,” Chris tells Dynamic Business.

“We were actually the first people to come up with this interface which is used everywhere now. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t possible to really patent anything at the time.”

With an interest in technology and education, Chris’ ultimate calling came when he decided to find a way to help his sister.

Christ Stephen, Readable English, Co-Founder
Chris Stephen, Readable English, Co-Founder

“She had Multiple Sclerosis,” Chris says. “She was an avid reader and had difficulty reading. We gave her large print and she couldn’t read that either. I thought it had something to do with large print, but she found that harder to read than normal print. Eventually we found she had an eye-tracking problem. Her eyes would jump a line and she wouldn’t be aware of it, so she’d get the words in the wrong order.”

It was an issue that would lead Chris to research the literacy issues affecting many Australians. He developed a plan to get publishers to develop large print books, but they didn’t bite.

“They thought it was a nice idea, but they weren’t very interested in taking it on board. It wasn’t part of their mass-market business,” Chris says.

“So we set a company to start printing large print, e-books, and other things. We developed a whole series of technologies to take a publisher’s PDF into XML, to generate different formats automatically. There was a great deal of tech involved. It certainly wasn’t easy to do.”

Chris founded ReadHowYouWant, an Australian publishing company that provides a variety of customised reading formats including Large Print, Braille and DAISY. ReadHowYouWant was to be the first major step towards the business he focuses on today.

Chris met Ann Fitts, a reading specialist from California, while on an overseas meditation retreat. At the time Ann worked at The Reading Clinic, a tutoring centre she had co-founded to help struggling readers learn to read through multi-sensory reading programs.

It wasn’t long before the two realised that helping people to read was a shared interest, and Readable English was born.

“We built up this business gradually, growing as we developed more technology,” Chris says.

“We started to expand it by selling more books. We’re the only people in this business who actually produce large-print books of Australian material, New Zealand material, Canadian material. We do a lot of biographies, from America and Britain, which aren’t usually done in large-print.”

Apart from the production of large-print books, Readable English has a strong online focus. The website offers individuals, parents and teachers the tools needed to read English well, especially for those who have problems pronouncing non-phonetic words.

“We were influenced by the results of a test done in Italy. They were looking for Italian dyslexics, which they obviously found. But what was interesting is that they found that the dyslexics in Italy could still read, while here in Australia they can’t,” Chris says.

“So, what’s the difference? We don’t know the exact proportion, but over 50 per cent of English words are not phonetic. They are not pronounced the way they are spelt.”

“With Readable English, it is no longer necessary to spend large amounts of time teaching students the inconsistent letter-sound patterns (and exceptions!),” the website reads. “By introducing a series of visual clues, called glyphs, each character has only one sound and the pronunciation of words is predictable.”

Chris emphasizes the wide reaching effect that illiteracy has in Australia and the world.

“In the United States, around 85 per cent of juvenile offenders who are incarcerated are illiterate. It’s a similar thing here. Around 70 per cent of people in jail are either illiterate or have poor literacy skills. The best way to reduce the recidivism rate is to teach them to read while in prison. It actually reduces the recidivism rate by 80 per cent.

“46 per cent of Australians are actually functionally illiterate. This is a really big deal. There are always figures being release about what illiteracy is costing Australia. Some estimates have revealed it costs around $US18 billion. We’re talking about figures that would make a significant dent in any budget deficit here. It’s a really big problem.”

Guillermo Troncoso

Guillermo Troncoso

Guillermo is the Editor of Dynamic Business and Manager of film &amp; television entertainment site ScreenRealm.com. Follow him on <a href="https://twitter.com/gtponders">Twitter</a>.

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