Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Never too late to read
South China Morning Post, June 2006

There are 12 million British adults who have literacy skills worse than those of an 11 year old, according to a recent report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee. Now British authors, entertainers and sports personalities are trying to convince reluctant readers that reading and writing can be fun.

These adults are emergent readers: adults with low literacy skills who may not have picked up a book in years. They may lead perfectly normal lives— holding down jobs and raising families— but be unable to fill out forms, read anything more than newspapers or help their children with their homework. Until recently, even if they wanted to, there was very little for them to read, except dumbed down or abridged versions of adult books. Now, best-selling authors including Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell, Joanna Trollope and Richard Branson have written Quick Reads—a series of short, fast-paced books especially for emergent readers. Each of the twelve books is just over a 100 pages long. Quick Reads is funded by World Book Day, National Book Tokens, and the Department of Education, among others. Its partners include the BBC, The Vital Link and The Reading Agency.

There’s been a real paucity of interesting reading material for emergent readers,” says Kay Jackaman, campaign manager for The Vital Link, one of the several organizations behind Quick Reads. “The books are written to be readable, but there’s been no attempt to alter content or sacrifice the depth for the story.” The books are also easy to acquire. They are priced at £2.99—on a par with most magazines— and 5 million vouchers for a £1 off discount are being distributed. The vouchers can be downloaded off the net, and are also being handed out at libraries, community centres, colleges, playhouses and various other venues. Twelve more books will be published in May.

There are numerous reasons why adults give up on reading— they may find it difficult, they may be time-poor, or they may struggle to understand English because it’s not their first language – but anything that leads them into the escapist joy of fiction must be a good thing,” says crime writer Minette Walters. Among the authors who have written Quick Reads books are some who have had reading difficulties, such as the author Rowan Coleman who suffered from dyslexia as a child. Other authors admit to discovering books late in life, such as Richard Branson and the sports writer Mick Dennis, whose book The Team takes a behind-the-scenes look at football. “I have dyslexia and so can get frustrated when reading because I have a short attention span. I really got into The Team though,” says Garry Purchase, a 40-year-old casual labourer from Wolverhampton, who went back to college in 2003 unable to read even a newspaper. He has now achieved a Level 1 in literacy and won an award for learning in 2005. “This was the first book I have ever read from front to back. It is also the first book I have ever read and really understood,” says Purchase. “I haven’t read for years because I just haven’t had the time,” says Helen Smith, a 43-year-old carer and stay at home mother of five, who recently read Coleman’s Woman walks into a Bar. “But these books are short and easy to read.”

Meanwhile, the BBC is trying to make reading attractive to people who might usually watch soaps or read celebrity magazines rather than read. Its ongoing entertainment-driven Reading and Writing campaign (RaW) is using soap stars, celebrities and sportspersons to reach emergent readers. The tag-line: “Fulfill your raw potential.” “Our research shows that emergent readers often don’t recognize that they have a problem, yet they often have reading or writing difficulties holding them back at home or in the workplace. When people see celebrities with learning difficulties, it gives them the motivation to do something about their own lives,” says Jane Quinn, learning executive at the BBC.

The three year RaW campaign focuses on making people want to read, rather than telling them that they should read. Popular soaps Neighbours, Eastenders and Doctors now have story lines focusing on reading disabilities. The BBC RaW page has quizzes, competitions with prizes, book recommendations by soap stars and a glossy, celebrity style magazine to make reading more fun. There is a free phone coaching line which helps callers identify their problems and find solutions. In the lead up to the World Cup, the campaign will be working with top footballers to encourage families to write “football stories”. Reading groups will be organized to discuss Quick Reads and other books. “RaW is about tapping into people’s passions and interests,” emphasizes Quinn. Says Smith, who attended a RaW workshop recently with seven other women, “It was great fun and very interesting. It brought out a lot of women who were very quiet, and I think it will get them reading.”

Adults with learning difficulties have been singled out for attention before. The Department of Education’s ongoing Skills for Life campaign, launched in 2001, aims at improving the skills of 2.25 million adults by 2010. But the campaign has met with mixed reviews. The Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded last December that the campaign has done little to improve the quality of adult literacy, and that much more needs to be spent. The Adult Learning Inspectorate called the Skills for Life campaign “of debatable value” saying that those most in need were not benefiting. A report by Lord Leitch, the chairman of the National Employment Panel, also warned that the skills shortage is threatening Britain’s future. Campaigners say that people often do not come forward because they are ashamed, shy or simply too busy holding down a job. School may often hold traumatic memories for them, or they may think it’s too late to go back. Agrees Purchase, “It took me several phone calls before I stopped hanging up. On the last call, someone answered too quickly for me to put the phone down. So, I ended up in college.”

Says 52-year-old Jennifer ( she preferred not to give her second name), who has just started a English brush-up course at the BBC learning centre in Gloucester, "At school it wasn’t important to take exams, and back then girls were expected to get married and have children, not have a career. I have struggled in the workplace, especially letters and emails. I’d do anything to get out of writing.”

Organisers of both campaigns say they are not the whole answer, just a tactic to grab the attention of emergent readers and coax them into re-entering the classroom. “I just want to get them back into a learning environment and show them that it doesn’t take that much time to learn something new,” says Quinn. “What we need to do is inspire a curiosity about reading,” says Jackaman. “We need to show them what they can get out of it, in order to hook them in.”

Purchase is hooked already. He plans to go on to university. “It’s like I have been in a coma for the last 40 years, and have just woken up.” Says Jennifer "Now I’m not that child in a classroom where the teacher told us, ‘You’re as thick as 40 planks, the lot of you’. I’m a grown-up. I’m getting more confident and it’s great."