Sophie Wellstood reports on how to tackle Britain’s high levels of illiteracy

There are some grim statistics on the reading and writing abilities of English children. In London ‘one in three children in 11 council wards…started secondary school with dramatically impaired reading abilities, meaning they are on course to be “functionally illiterate”, according to government guidelines,’ wrote Tom Harper in 2011.

A quick internet search throws up more uncomfortable data: thousands of children arrive at secondary school without the literacy skills necessary to cope within the education system: our children are the worst in Europe at foreign languages: one in three teenagers reads two or fewer books a year: one in three children say they do not own a book: one in four children leaves the capital’s state primaries barely able to read at all.

Whose fault is it that so many of our children can’t read or write fluently? The schools? The parents? The children themselves? The internet? The government?
The answer is probably all of the above, to a greater or lesser degree. One factor, however, stands out head and shoulders above all the others. My experience of working with adults with literacy difficulties confirms that first and foremost good literacy skills start at home. And clearly this is a challenge in many families given the great number of children in primary schools who are total strangers to books and reading when they begin in reception class.

I have taught hundreds of adults with reading and writing difficulties, from staff at Downing Street to ex-offenders, and everyone, without exception, has said that for one reason or another their family didn’t ‘do’ books. Many also state that schooling was just a humiliating disaster. But the overriding factor that they all share was no stories, no picture books, no nursery rhymes in books at home – nothing.

The reasons for this are not mysterious, though they are to my mind depressing; no money for ‘luxuries’ like books; no interest or value placed in books or reading; generations of low literacy within families; taking care of younger kids; television; chaos. Compound that with poor teaching, overcrowded classrooms, maybe dyslexia and / or any other learning difficulty, add some teenage rebellion, family break-up, any other combination of dysfunction, truancy and trouble, and the result may illiteracy, with the anger, embarrassment, frustration, disaffection, disadvantage and lifetime of limited opportunities that implies.

‘But books are boring,’ is one of the most frustrating arguments I’ve heard, and I hear it again and again. Yes, some books are boring; my work’s health and safety manuals would render comatose a caffeinated kangaroo. But many, many books are incredible gateways into different, astonishing worlds and reading opens a child’s eyes and heart to fantasy and adventure. Reading is a child’s key to the world of fiction, role-play, fear, glee, power, sadness, joy. And reading gives a child access to all the information in the world, because if you can read, you can learn about anything. And reading also helps a child to concentrate, process, evaluate, criticise, question.

What to Do?
How to fix the problem? How to encourage families to value and nurture reading? How to actively support children to become better readers?

First you need support for the children and Beanstalk, a national charity, provides vital support in schools to those who are struggling or falling behind with their reading. Reading volunteers are increasingly playing a significant role, going into primary schools and working with children over a substantial period of time – usually at least a year. The rewards are measurable. On average, Beanstalk’s volunteers have helped their children’s reading skills improve by two reading sub-levels within a year. It’s easy to volunteer, and the experience for volunteers can be just as valuable.

One reading volunteer, E.R, has worked with children in a south London primary for three years. ‘They are not always easy, and they’re not always interested,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I’ve felt like I was wasting my time and his. But then when he got it – you could see his confidence go through the ceiling. He’s such a sweet kid, he needs a chance.’ Results don’t happen overnight, and E explains that it can be frustrating when clearly the parents are not supporting the child with their reading. ‘You get the books back which the parents are meant to fill out to say they have completed such and such with the child, but it’s obvious that they haven’t. You can tell that a sibling has filled it in. It’s like the parents simply don’t care. And some of the families, the problems are so complex that asking them to read stories together is just a completely alien thing. You might as well ask them to jog to the moon.’

Helping the Parents
It may be an impossible task to get all parents and carers to take reading seriously, and, as a teacher of adults, I am only too aware that many of my learners find the prospect of reading with their children quite mortifying, but it is one of the motivators for adults joining a literacy course, showing that there are parents who want to address this.

There are a number of problems starting with the parent’s own experience of books and language. They have often never been read to themselves, and have never read a book in its entirety. Books are simply things that other people have access to (and there are class and cultural issues here, without a doubt), but are not a part of their world.

Then there’s the whole reading out loud thing. It’s something we never do in our day-to-day lives and many of us can remember being forced to read out loud at school, stumbling over a word or sentence, the humiliation and fear of the experience living on. If an adult is insecure in their own reading, then I can’t think of a better way to reinforce that insecurity than to make them read out loud and get it wrong in front of their own child.

And of course, if you find reading difficult, then it’s hard work, and people are lazy. Telly is quicker, video games are noisier, texting is interactive, and social networking more overtly friendly.

Moreover, reading is changing – or rather, what and how we read is changing. Texting, surfing the net, blogging, tweeting are now commonplace; books, if we are not very careful, are going to seem old-fashioned and irrelevant to techno-savvy parents as well as our children.

And Both Together
The benefits of shared reading are well documented, for parents as well as children: deeper bonding, a shared adventure, as well as the incredible link between sounds, letters, words, pictures, rhythm and rhyme which combine to make a story or poem. Yes, an adult may tire of going over the same story again and again, but for the child, this repetition is reinforcement, a confidence boost and a crucial part of the early literacy experience.

The ‘whole family’ approach to literacy is surely the most effective in improving children’s reading, and in addition to the work of Beanstalk, in 2012 the National Literacy Trust recruited five hundred volunteers to work with two thousand families across London.

National Literacy Trust Director Jonathan Douglas has said that, ‘The National Literacy Trust’s work has demonstrated that friends, neighbours and other community members can help parents support the literacy of their children. This is particularly important for parents with low literacy who may be less confident using services such as libraries and children’s centres. With an estimated 1 in 5 parents in London struggling with basic literacy, we hope the scheme will make a huge difference to families in the capital.’

One of the many important findings from their report for the National Literacy Trust ‘The Importance of Family Support For Young People’s Reading’ (Christina Clark and Irene Picton, 2011) is that ‘Young people who see their mother and father read a lot are more likely to identify themselves as readers, to enjoy reading, to read frequently and to have positive attitudes towards reading compared to young people who do not see their mother or father read at all.’

I have worked on family literacy programmes within primary schools in London, and the benefits for parents are enormous. Listening to and following a story on the page is a brilliant and non-threatening way for an adult to learn along with their child.

Children’s texts have carefully chosen vocabulary which can be decoded phonetically. In an adult literacy class one would generally never use children’s texts, but with family story groups there are no such restrictions.

Reading in groups develops confidence, friendships and enables all sorts of support. Also, time can be set aside for sharing more ‘adult’ material (I don’t mean that sort, but each to their own): letters, forms, instructions, contracts, and so on. Funding cuts have long since forced the closure of these programmes, but there’s no reason why with a little organisation and motivation parents cannot arrange their own story sessions.

All that’s needed to create a family story group is a room, plenty of cushions, some popular children’s books and enough adults willing to take it in turns to read stories out loud. If – as is frequently the case, and indeed is actually the point of these groups – the adults’ own literacy difficulties are a barrier to this, them some sensitive management and a confident leader can ensure the adults learn along with their children. Nothing should be forced. The emphasis should be on everyone, parents and children, reading and enjoying together.

And in Future?
Can the government, schools, parents, volunteers and children all work together to increase our literacy standards and raise the prospects for the generation now growing up in such a difficult economic climate? Who knows. I despair of there ever being enough funding available to support smaller classes, to keep libraries open, to provide every school child with a free book every month for the duration of their time in education, to fund highly-trained and properly-paid teaching assistants – but it is churlish to stay angry about the politics without doing anything to support the people.

Volunteering is effective, rewarding and it’s desperately needed across the whole country. Helping a child to access language builds confidence, enables the child to develop many other skills, opens the world to them. It can open a world to the volunteer, too.

CSV creates opportunities for people to take an active part in the life of their community. For more details contact Carrie Anker, Project Officer, CSV Employee Volunteering, 237 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9NJ 020 7643 1439 Tuesday-Thursday

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