The secret crisis of adult literacy

The secret crisis of adult literacy

Excitement is building in playgrounds across the country this week as World Book Day 2020 approaches, and children everywhere will be encouraged to celebrate books and take pleasure in reading. This year the focus is on the joy of sharing books with others and recognizing the crucial benefits that this can bring - a fantastic reminder to parents to put down their phones, step away from their laptops and spend time reading with their children.

It is certainly a timely event coming just days after Egmont launched a petition to bring storytime into the national curriculum, following a study that revealed that children’s comprehension of reading suffers without it. Their research found that 40% of 6 to 11 year olds currently read for pleasure almost every day, while only 25% of the same age group are read to at home. But whilst findings like these are always worrying, and positive drives such as World Book Day aimed at reversing such trends are always to be commended, there is for me a more alarming statistic. And it is one that, despite a succession of Government reports, is just not going away.

2.4 million adults in England alone can barely read or cannot read at all (Skills for Life Survey, 2011, Dept.BIS, the most recent data available). This equates to 7.1% of the working age population who struggle with this most basic requirement of everyday life, a percentage that is almost certainly reflected across the rest of the UK.  This is not the result of immigration; the majority of people in this country with reading difficulties have been born and raised here. And please don’t think that this is just an issue faced by the older generation, which will die out with them. This a problem which is getting worse. England is the only country in the developed world where literacy levels are worse in the younger generation (16-24) than in those approaching retirement. In 2013, the literacy levels of England's 16-24 year olds were ranked 22nd out of 24 developed countries by the intergovernmental economic organisation, the OECD.

That’s a lot of parents who cannot support their children’s reading, a lot of parents for whom the words ‘World Book Day’ make them feel sick to their core. Many of these parents don’t even enter a doctor’s surgery when they are ill because they are frightened that they will be asked to read something or fill in a simple form, and for them the doors of Waterstones seem to resemble the gates of a kingdom they are forbidden from entering. Such is the shame many parents feel at not being able to read, they find it easier instead to hide the reading books their children bring home from school, so they are not faced with being asked to read with them. One mum, Donna, had a son with a nut allergy.  Her reading skills were so bad, that when going shopping, she was unable to read the list of ingredients on the labels of the food products she bought. Her son was hospitalised several times before she built up the confidence to admit that he was there as the result of her reading difficulties.

It is incredibly hard to function at all in today’s world if you can’t read. mYou can’t easily open a bank account or use cashpoint machines, you can’t vote because you are unable to register, you can’t read road signs and other signs, such as in hospitals, to work out where you need to go.  Engaging with the benefits system can also be overwhelmingly challenging, and finding work - particularly rewarding work - can also be very difficult, leading to loneliness, low self-esteem and often poor mental health.

In 2014, following the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee fifth report into Adult Literacy and Numeracy, the Government declared that ‘support for maths and English continued to be a high priority’, and that they would ‘continue to invest in this area’. Since then however, many adult literacy classes have continued to be cut, especially for those with the lowest literacy levels, and the Children’s Centres where they suggested help could be accessed, have nearly all been closed. So where exactly is the investment?

I founded Read Easy UK in 2010. We remain the only national charity providing confidential one-to-one coaching for people who are struggling to read. The coaching is delivered by trained volunteers through a network of affiliated locally-run volunteer groups. Reading pairs meet twice a week at approved local venues to work for just half an hour at a time through a structured, phonics-based reading programme. It’s a simple model, but it’s a model that works and we are changing lives forever. But until we are given the funding to grow, and the problem of adult literacy is tackled, there will be an ongoing, inter-generational cycle of illiteracy in far too many families. As a result, parents will continue to be unable to support their children’s reading, and this untapped market for publishers will remain untapped, despite the efforts of World Book Day.

Ginny Williams-Ellis is the chief executive of Read Easy UK