Open a book, step into a world of opportunity

Adults with poor literacy have a tough time: their prospects are limited and everyday tasks can be baffling. But it's never too late
21st November 2014, 12:00am


Open a book, step into a world of opportunity

Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Because I want to tell you a story. I took a student of mine to the local library and, with the help of a librarian, he selected a thriller set in Cornwall. This student was in his late thirties and he hadn't read a book for years. He was not a library user, but one of our class tasks was to enrol anyone who didn't already have a membership card.

He didn't finish the book. In fact, he read about a third before he concluded that the plot was a bit ropey and took it back, swapping it for another. But it got him reading. By the end of the course, he was an avid library-goer.

One in six adults in the UK struggles to read. According to the National Literacy Trust, this means their proficiency is below the level expected of an 11-year-old. Simple texts are fine, but unfamiliar words and topics can cause problems.

A low level of literacy is an obstacle to opportunity and aspiration. Understanding job applications, applying for positions that involve paperwork and becoming computer literate all depend on reading. Perhaps even more crucial is the ability to decipher letters from doctors or schools.

It may seem extraordinary that, in 2014, people can reach adulthood without being able to read competently, even after being schooled in the UK. But they do. Undiagnosed sight problems and unidentified learning needs (such as dyslexia) can be to blame. A pair of glasses or a bit of expert support may be all that is needed to set them on their reading journey.

I teach English to adults and although some of my learners devour books, the vast majority don't. If they do read, it tends to be with their children. Our lessons are full of reading and writing, of course, but the students do it because they are asked to, not because they want to.

According to the Reading Agency, confident and enthusiastic readers have better life chances. "Our main aim is to help people of any age and ability to discover that reading can be a pleasure and can reinforce their learning," says the charity's programme manager, Genevieve Clarke.

One of its initiatives is the Six Book Challenge. Working in conjunction with colleges, training providers, libraries and prisons, participating adults read six texts (not just books, but poems or articles from newspapers and magazines) and keep a diary of their responses to them. Incentives and prizes are available and, crucially, the diary is not marked, assessed or even compulsory. Halfway to your target after finishing three articles on fishing? Brilliant! That's three more reading experiences than you had before.

Further reading

The adult learning service that I work for signed up to the Six Book Challenge in February, which is how I found myself reading my student's critique of the rather dubious-sounding Cornish thriller. Tackling this novel - his first ever - had turned him into a reviewer, and an acerbic one at that. My student's reading was linking with his writing, as well as his speaking and listening - the combination of skills needed to become more literate. The challenge was also ticking boxes on the curriculum.

There are no set texts in the Six Book Challenge. "Motivation gets you a long way," Clarke says. "If you're mad about motorbikes, read something on motorbikes. So many people interpret reading for pleasure as fiction but we want to think of it as really broad. We want people to push themselves, but if the best starting point is something very short, then great."

Popular authors, such as Roddy Doyle and Lynda La Plante have written original novels that are short and easy to read to make them more accessible to those with lower levels of literacy. They're called Quick Reads and are stocked in bookshops and libraries, allowing adults who may feel intimidated by longer stories to get stuck into a good yarn.

"Before Quick Reads, there was a dearth of suitable material and there was the terrible danger that people would be sent to the children's shelves," Clarke says.

Being able to read books, especially ones that are relevant and engaging, boosts self-esteem. Over the past three years of the Six Book Challenge, 90 per cent of respondents said that taking part had made them feel more confident.

Books Unlocked, run jointly by the National Literacy Trust and the Booker Prize Foundation, introduces prisoners to novels nominated for the Man Booker Prize via reading groups and author visits. In prison, learning is essential, particularly when you consider that half the male prison population was excluded from school and 60 per cent struggle to read and write.

"Supporting prisoners to read for enjoyment is extremely important for the development of their literacy skills, which are crucial for future attainment and rehabilitation," says Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust. "We know first-hand the difference that improved literacy makes to prisoners' quality of life and future prospects."

It's never too late to improve reading skills. Read Easy is another not-for-profit organisation that trains and supports volunteers to tutor adults in reading. Book clubs, reading circles and books swaps all help to make it an accessible and habitual part of daily life. Reading is a pleasure but it is also the key to education, employment and better opportunities. Everyone should be reading.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London. For more information on the Six Book Challenge visit Further support is available at and

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