The first mnemonic: broccoli

A few years later, I was teaching adult literacy in the evenings at a local community centre. My group was hugely diverse: women from Morocco who had received only a basic primary education in Arabic, with a tiny bit of French, ambitious young men from Colombia keen to progress as fast as possible, and several adults who had had traumatic experiences at school and had only just worked up the courage to re-engage with education.

With this last group, I began to see a pattern: often they were undiagnosed dyslexics, who had been told they were stupid or lazy (or both) by less-than-enlightened teachers many decades ago. A whole lifetime of damage had been done, as people believed these negative judgements and wrote themselves off. Only the bravest and most dedicated took the plunge and came to adult literacy classes.

One of my students was a keen cook, so we tended to focus on words she would find in recipes and out shopping. She struggled in particular with broccoli, and could never remember how many Cs and how many Ls. I sketched a picture of a piece of broccoli, then drew two Cs at the top and one L on the stalk. A light went on behind her eyes. She grabbed my sketch and insisted on keeping it – for the first time, she had found something that actually helped.

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