Insights from our longest serving Hotliner

Insights from our longest serving Hotliner

In September this year we farewelled our longest serving Hotliner Elizabeth van der Velden who left us for retirement in the beautiful Sunshine Coast. Before she left, we caught up with Elizabeth to get her insights on working at the Hotline.

How did you first get involved with the Hotline?

I first worked at the Hotline almost 30 years ago, when it was set up at the Adult Literacy Information Office in Redfern, Sydney. At that time, the Reading Writing Hotline was a call-in service to support a TV adult literacy series and workbook The Reading Writing Roadshow.

What skills do you need to work on the Hotline?  

You need to be flexible, empathetic and have good listening skills.  It’s also important to have broad literacy and numeracy teaching experience and be aware of the different kinds of provision available through the range of organisations on the Hotline database.

You develop the ability to assess on the go and work out appropriate support.  A sense of humour helps, as does a curious mind and determination, when additional research is required to find something to meet particular needs.

Elizabeth van der Velden

Elizabeth van der Velden

What has been the best thing about working on the Hotline?

The best thing is being able to provide affirmation and assistance to callers, knowing what a huge effort many have put in to making the call for help. It’s great to be able to point them in directions where they can get the help they seek and have more control in their life.

What is the hardest thing about working on the Hotline?

The hardest thing is when you have to say there isn’t any appropriate help available to the person because of their isolation, particular needs and lack of provision.  Although we can encourage the caller by talking about strategies for self-help, it feels so sad knowing that just one trained tutor could make such a difference if only they were available.

Based on your experience of talking to callers where is the greatest need in Australia?

Geographically, the greatest need is in the Northern Territory, where there seems to be very little provision that is appropriate and accessible.  We also need more provision in country and remote areas across Australia.

The need for digital literacy competence has increased, often accompanied by literacy/numeracy gaps generally. People are having to deal with more online information and forms and the loss of face-to-face services through bank and post office closures.

With changes to NDIS more carers are using our resources to support clients who have acknowledged literacy needs, but who can’t have literacy tuition included as part of their care plan.  There is a need for literacy/numeracy/ digital literacy to be more easily included within care plans for people with disabilities.  There is also a need for more help generally, for those with particular disabilities or learning difficulties such as face to face help for people with dyslexia or Neurosensory learning difficulties.

We also need more community literacy courses to cater for the needs of the growing number of elderly people, as well as parents and those not ready to return to the workplace, so they can work on individual needs, manage day to day literacy requirements and nurture aspirations for the future.

What changes have you seen in the literacy, numeracy and digital literacy sector over the years from working at the Hotline?

The Hotline has broadened the scope of what it does enormously.  Our callers are no longer only those who are looking for literacy/numeracy help in one way or another for themselves, but can be from employers, the community or health care sector, legal representatives, government and professional organisations and many others who are looking for particular help for groups of people.  Many people look to the Reading Writing Hotline for information about trends, needs and changes.  It has always supplied statistical information to stakeholders and interested organisations, but now is more involved in interpreting and funnelling information to effect positive change.

Unfortunately, there is less one to one or small group individualised support provided now and a decreased range of class options.

But it’s good to see more volunteer tutor training programs are now operating in libraries and community centres. I’m hoping that the Hotline’s Voluntary Tutor training course will continue to be taken up in the future to provide more help to communities. There has been a steady stream of callers wanting to volunteer as tutors, which peaked following the SBS TV series.  Learning with a trained volunteer tutor in a less institutional style setting, can be a very comfortable way for an adult learner to begin literacy study.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the successful jingle which is now iconic!

Who is the caller who most made an impression on you? Whose story has stuck with you over the years?

There are so many stories that have made an impression.  Calls where there have been ducks and geese very audible in the background, or birds, lambs, cattle, a baby crying, immediately set the scene for me. They draw me in to a distant realm or an intimate cocoon and remain etched in my memory as a lovely part of working on the Hotline.

Calls where a caller has been able to disclose extraordinary difficulties they have experienced and then taken up suggestions or referrals to improve things for themselves, stay with me.  These callers usually call back from time to time, and it is so great to hear what they are doing.

For example, a farmer who had struggled for years to get by, was surprised to learn in his discussion with me, that the “shameful tricks” he used to manage reading, spelling and writing, were actually “strategies” teachers taught to their students.  I couldn’t find any face to face help available to him and his level wasn’t suitable for distance study, so he was sent a Hotline workbook to see if it would help.  When he called back to request another workbook, he was ecstatic (and so was I).  He had taught himself to read it over and over, he had copied words on scraps of paper to pull out of his pocket from time to time to read.  He had gone on to extend this to copying other words he saw in notices and information sheets he came across.  Then he was copying and writing and putting words together.  He devoured more workbooks we sent over time and hopefully the confidence and self-belief he found, is still propelling him forward into further learning.

What’s the best feedback you ever got from a caller?

The best feedback to me always demonstrates empowerment and confidence.