Hamilton couple invents self-teaching dictionary

Justin and Annmarie Page have put together a dictionary to help people teach themselves how to read.

'We call it the 'U-Can' because with it, you can to teach yourself to read'

Hamilton's Justin and Annmarie Page have put out the U-Can Dictionary. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Justin and Annmarie Page sit at the kitchen table of their east Hamilton redbrick, beaming over freshly printed copies of their new book.

The couple's first title isn't a memoir or a work of fiction. Rather, it's a dictionary — coil-bound with a black, red and white cover — specifically designed for people who are learning how to read.

"This is the people's book," says Justin, excitement booming in his voice. "We call it the 'U-Can' because with it, you can to teach yourself to read." 

He's confident of this because he's used the tool himself. Justin (born Tracy LeQuyere) describes himself as a "functional illiterate" who plodded his way through school and couldn't read until age 33.

Now 62, he says the process of putting the book together has expanded the number of words he can reliably read almost five-fold, from 1,300 to over 6,000.

'Sensible' design

With around 7,000 words, the U-Can Dictionary has much fewer entries than the your average Oxford or Merriam-Webster tome. Annmarie, who essentially wrote the book, listed each word with its simplest, most commonly used definition.

But what distinguishes the Pages' dictionary even more is how it's laid out. Like in any dictionary, its entries are organized by letter. In the U-Can, however, they are divided down even further. Under each letter, the one and two-letter words come first, allowing readers to pick up foundational words and syllables before moving on to more challenging fare.

The Pages designed the dictionary to be as user-friendly as possible. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

 "You have to learn those 500 words before you go any further — because that's logical, sensible, meaningful, understandable and no one's disagreed," says Justin.

The book, he says, has other features that make using it even handier. The alphabet is listed at the bottom of each page, functioning as a sort of legend to help readers flip between passages more easily. All of the words used in the meanings, he adds, are defined elsewhere in the dictionary.

"We just empowered the functional illiterate to go after the words that he knows. Now that I know where they are, I just have to know how to spell them. I just have to learn them. And that's the whole magic of this book."

Ongoing campaign

The U-Can Dictionary is the next chapter in Justin's three-decade-long crusade to reduce illiteracy in Canada. In the mid-1980s, he, along with fellow ex-con Rick Parsons, founded Beat the Street, a program designed to help people who fell through the proverbial cracks in the education system to teach each other how to read.

"I started the literacy program because I'm smart. I knew that dirty little, stinkin' bikers and bag ladies and those people will help each other," he says, purposely invoking the slang of the day. "So we would get a scumbag who knows how to read to teach a bag lady who doesn't know how to read. And it worked."

Beat the Street worked so well that it was replicated across Canada, attracting millions of dollars government funding and charitable donations. In addition, the duo's efforts won them the Order of Canada in 1989.

The honour didn't diminish Justin's fire for the cause. He rhymes off statistics about how many Canadians can't read well and speaks emotionally on what effect poor literacy has not only on one's job prospects, but also one's self-esteem.

"When some kids, they don't get it, they cry," he says. "It's full of shame. It's full of embarrassment. You hand me joke? All of my life, people go, 'Hey, want to read a joke?' I was the joke, because I couldn't read it."

Team effort

Justin decided to ask his wife, with whom he's raising two boys, Jack, 6, and Michael, 17, to help him make his dream of a self-teaching dictionary a reality.

"Originally, I wanted no part of this," says Annmarie, an avid reader who, as a child, consulted her Charlie Brown dictionary for fun. "I said to him, 'What the hell are you doing? Writing a dictionary?'"

'We were like druggies, knocking on our friends' doors, asking 'Hey, do you have the words?'—Justin Page

But eventually Annmarie, 43, got onboard with the project. "It's Justin's passion," she says, "and I needed to get it out for him."

Together, the couple enlisted friends to pore over thousands of words to determine which ones would make the cut. "We were like druggies, knocking on our friends' doors, asking 'Hey, do you have the words?' Justin laughs. "And then we'd go count them in the car."

The process of whittling down the definitions, Annmarie says, was onerous as well.

"I had this all done with the meanings and he says to me, 'Can you make them shorter?' And I said, "Are you serious?'"

"I drove her crazy," Justin chimes in. "That's what she's trying to say."

'Powerful' book

Three years on, the Pages have finished copies of the book in hand. They elected to have the book published by Inclusion Press, a Toronto imprint that Marsha Forest, the late activist and educator who inspired Justin to learn how to read, co-founded.

"It's still a little unreal," says Annmarie. "We waited so long to get it and now that we have it, it's beautiful. I carry it around everywhere and I show everybody."

They have also entered into an agreement with Wal-Mart to have the retail giant stock 10,000 copies on its shelves. Justin hopes the exposure will get the book into the hands of as many new readers — both young and old — as possible.

"Knowledge is words and words are power," Justin says. "This is the most powerful book in the world because if you can master this, you've got everything."

The U-Can Dictionary ($20, plus shipping and handling) is available on Inclusion Press's website. People in Hamilton who wish to have the book delivered for free can order it by calling the Pages at 905-538-9133.