Why we read

One morning, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I fell upon the Seventeen Reasons for Children’s Books, by The Swedish Academy of Children’s Books. What a lovely thing I thought, before scrolling on past. But it stuck with me all day, and started to make me wonder and question my own assumptions.

So why do we read? As adults? What motivates an adult to read? And if we understand the motivation for reading, can it help us to promote reading in greater and more positive ways?

I went to the best resource I had at the time to find out more – a wonderful, diverse group of adult learners, some who were also parents, all who were on a learning journey, all saying I want more and I want better and I want to develop myself.

I shared the ‘seventeen reasons’ with them and asked them, but what about us? What is the purpose and value of books for us? Why do we read? This was a group talked about reading a lot. I am always conscious of the role model I am to my learners, so I talk about reading, make links to my own reading, and share things I have read. This creates a shared atmosphere of value and promotes positive reading experiences. I also talk explicitly about the role model each parent is to their children: not just, read to your kids, but let your children see you reading. Let them see that you value reading. Share with them, make time and space for it, and see where it goes. (This can often raise a debate about smartphones – which is a better example for children, staring at a phone or reading a book, etc).

The following discussion of why we read was one of the most personal and inclusive discussions I have known in a classroom. Everyone shared; everyone had an opinion; everyone had a different view of why they read or what they liked to read. The photo above shows the result. We captured everyone’s thoughts and feelings on the whiteboard, so we could keep it and read it back, and even compared it to the ‘seventeen reasons’.

Interestingly, no one ever mentioned employability, nor said they felt they needed to read to get a job – which tells me more than I can express in a few blog words about the value of reading.

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In defence of family learning

Following on from my last post, ‘On owning adult education’:

When it comes to adult education, I’m all for it in all forms. Structured, curriculum-focussed; unstructured learner-led; unstructured, make-it-up-as-we-go-along; gain accreditation or don’t gain accreditation; what appears to be total, all out leisure… (1) Just as long as it is open, honest, and accessible to one and all.

But I also think we need to have joined-up thinking when considering adult education. I’m mainly pondering here about some of the reasons that adults decided to join a class or course. OK, sometimes it’s out-and-out leisure (I have a habit, in my rare, spare time, of going on horse training courses, particularly with Intelligent Horsemanship), but sometimes there’s a deeper motivation. Teaching adult literacy, I often have folk telling me that they didn’t do well at school or didn’t take school seriously enough, so this is their second chance. But I also get a high proportion of parents telling me they’ve signed up because they want to be able to support their children. I get this: for me, there’s nothing quite so motivating as wanting to do well by my kids.

Family learning, therefore, is a wonderful opportunity to help and support those parents and, therefore, their children. Some family learning courses explicitly state the purpose is developing the child, with implicit adult learning being a deeper purpose.

However, I’d argue all families can benefit from family learning for it values learning, space together, and supporting one another. But on the back of research showing a direct collation between parents’ academic ability and their children’s, and reflecting on the then DfES Skills for Life survey (2003) that found people with lower literacy skills are more likely to live in areas of multiple deprivation, then this work must be more valuable now than ever.

It doesn’t have to be an outrightly supportive family course either. One of my favourites has to be Story Sacks courses. Spending 6 weeks lovingly putting together a Story Sack, personally made for a specific child, and engaging at least two generations, within or across culture. What’s not to like? But on the face of it, I can imagine the incredulous disinterest of the privileged: what, you want FREE funding to spend 6 weeks MAKING a pillowcase full of toys, games and crafts centred around a storybook? Ludicrous!

Yet I have witnessed the power of such work and will defend it forever. Witnessing a parent carefully and thoughtfully developing something special to share with their child, only their child, no one else on Earth, that may even access their roots, their deeper culture and language, is nothing short of an honour.

I won’t even begin to explain the benefits to child, parent, family and community. Because if you can’t work it out…

 

1.       I’m thinking ‘cake decorating’… but I have a friend who started cake decorating at night-school, got really good at it, entered some competitions and won them, started making cakes for other people, then gave up her successful career as a solicitor to make more money baking and decorating cakes, and now runs her own business, including a shop. True story. Ok, I accept that she’s the exception rather than the rule, but her story wouldn’t have happened if someone else devalued leisure courses enough to cancel them. And what about all the folk attending who are just having a great time, learning for learning’s sake, challenging themselves outside of their own norms, and raising their self-esteem?

 

On owning adult education

We need to call out privilege. Although I found it difficult, I’ve found myself calling out privilege at least three times in the last few weeks: twice on Twitter and once to a close family member. We need to call out privilege because if we don’t, ‘we’, the privileged, will continue to dominate and own the spaces that should be for all; we will continue to make assumptions and to make decisions on behalf of ‘everyone’; we will continue to miss the point and fail our communities and societies.

I’m saying this as someone who really struggles to be impolite to others, especially (ironically) on the Internet. I was born and raised on inclusive communities, which is what I seek to be a part of on Twitter. I find it extremely difficult to challenge anyone whose face I can’t see, although I have no problem challenging in real life, yet I’m conscious that most folk work the other way around.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m privileged. I struggle with that and the decisions it means I take on behalf of my learners (read my previous thoughts here). But at least I’m aware of it. Part of the problem is we usually, without taking a very careful and reflective look, can’t see our own privilege.

We are living through difficult times within our country, where public services are being cut under the excuse of ‘austerity’. The services of great value: our precious NHS, our libraries, our education system, the things that make us all more equal, the things that make life fairer and give folk similar or better life chances, are being stripped away from us.

There is a backlash against this, where ordinary and extraordinary people are rallying against these injustices that are damaging everyday lives. One of these excellent projects is the Centenary Commission into adult education.

However, we just need to be very careful, in my opinion, that we remain very aware of our own privilege whilst making decisions for others, who aren’t able (for whatever reason) to make those decisions for themselves.

There is no doubt, as research has shown, that there is a collation between parents’ academic ability and their children’s. The Literacy Trust has found that children who enjoy reading and writing have a better sense of wellbeing than those that don’t. It is reported that 16-18 funding hasn’t been increased for seven years and that adult education is down by 45% since 2010 (IFS). 500 children’s centres have closed between 2010 and 2018, and 340 libraries between 2010 and 2016 (Philip Aston, via Paul Stanistreet).

The difficulty is what we do with this information. The reason I am suggesting it is an issue of privilege is because if you have never lived it, then you have no idea how it impacts lives. If you have your education, then you don’t notice how it impacts those that can’t access it. If you can afford to pay for your own health care, even if in part, then you don’t notice how the lack of it impacts those who can’t. If you can afford to buy all your own books, your own computer, and your own space, then you don’t notice the impact of library closures on others. If you can afford expensive childcare, then you don’t notice the lack of children’s centres. If you have no idea and have never lived these experiences, then please, please, for goodness sake, do not think you have the right to make judgements on others’ lives.

An example: I often talk about the value and pride of teaching adult literacy (and numeracy) in a women’s centre in Birmingham. The women’s centre is Anawim, which does amazing, holistic, healing work for marginalised women. Our educational remit is to teach functional skills, enabling adult learners to gain a “Functional Skills” qualification, which in turn demonstrates they are functional for life, study and work. That’s it. That’s all I have to offer. So, if any women join the group who aren’t able, for whatever reason, to engage immediately in a qualification, does that mean I should turn them away? I’m talking probably the most in-need learners I currently work with. Before ten years ago, I could have enrolled them anyway, receiving funding for ‘personal goals’, bite-size steps that allowed learners to learn in their own time and in their own way. Now, those in far removed positions of privilege deem only ‘functionality’ and ‘employability’ as fundable aims.

I talk and tweet about this a lot (1). Those who are in most need of improving their literacy skills are the least likely to try to access our current, qualification-driven, functional skills courses. Those who would benefit most from a strong library in the heart of their community are the most likely to say ‘it’s not for people like me’. Those in most need of women’s centres and children’s centres are finding that these services just don’t exist anymore.

So next time I see or hear a person of privilege making a sweeping judgement about adult education, (or our health service, or our libraries, or children’s centres), yeah, I’m going to call it out. And whilst the Centenary Commission (2) is awesome, does it need to put power back into the hands of ordinary people, into communities, into the voluntary sector, and devolve power and control from government? Hell, yeah, it does.

1) Writing and tweeting (see tweet pic) about this has led to exciting things. With my wonderful friend and colleague, Isla Flood, I am convening a working group, ‘Celebrating 100 years of Adult Learning: what’s next?’, at this year’s #ReimagineFE19. Please do join us!

2) I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the 1919 report until a few weeks ago when the Centenary Commission was launched. An excellent blog, by Paul Stansistreet, explaining the 1919 report is more detail can be found here. Needless to say, I’ve updated my timeline of adult literacy education, found here.

“Reading is boring”

This one really knocked it out of me! When an adult learner, a mother of young children, said this to me, I’ve got to be honest that I was completely thrown. I didn’t want to challenge that view in any way that might cause distance between us, or that would disrespect what seemed to me to be an utterly outrageous statement, so I responded initially with quite a moderate and moderated response: “Well, what do you enjoy? What hobbies do you have? Perhaps we could find something you would enjoy reading?”

Of course, she didn’t actually mean that reading is boring. I realise that now. What she actually meant was reading is hard. But with such loaded statements, and such powerful reactions, it would be easy to get distracted from what is going on here, and what can be going on for adults that are motivated to join literacy classes.

I’ve noticed it particularly in classes we run in libraries. It seemed quite straightforward to me that if we ran out of a library, we were (A) accessible as in the centre of the community and (B) encouraging people to use the library more (a service at risk, let’s be honest). What’s not to like?! Except, folk weren’t signing up and using the library, and it was no more accessible than before.

When previously teaching and co-ordinating Skills for Life projects in probation, I always explicitly taught ‘using libraries’ as a topic. We learnt about the library, had a visit from someone who worked at the library to find about the services available there, we filled out an application form, then arranged not only a visit to join but a tour from the same member of staff, so the classes could really begin to access and understand the services available. However, these days, teaching mainly level 1 and level 2 Functional Skills out of libraries, I’d kind of assumed that wasn’t necessary, plus to be honest don’t really have the time.

Chatting to some of the group about their feelings about the library, however, was very telling indeed. There was a general feeling of “libraries aren’t for people like us” that shocked me. Whilst most adults report enrolling on a functional skills course to ‘better myself’, ‘improve my chances’ and ‘get into college/work’, most won’t recognise the circumstances of their lives may be preventing their own development, especially where families are locked in cycles of intergenerational literacy difficulties.

It’s also worth noting that the then DfES Skills for Life survey (2003), found that people with lower literacy skills are more likely to live in areas of multiple deprivation. So, it really is of no benefit for me to react in any kind of judgemental or even horrified way (which, trust me, it was hard not to do in the face of such statements) because I am coming at this from a place of privilege. Whilst I am able to access the data, to understand the benefits of reading for pleasure, to follow the OU/UKLA’s research, the majority of people will have no such privilege (or no such interest!). The majority of people will access what they need and are able to access and use in their daily lives, sometimes seeking help from a family member or friend, but without leaving the boundaries of their safe literacy space.

 Unfortunately, the current employment focus of literacy (and numeracy) qualifications, does not recognise or deal with these issues, in my opinion. The drive is to ‘upskill’ people; to make them more ‘functional’. This is our loss, as we lose the excellent multigenerational support of the Surestart Children’s Centres, cut back before they could truly prove their worth, as we lose our funding for family learning courses, despite the NAICE inquiry into adult literacy in England in 2011 stating: “The Department for Education (DfE), working with BIS and local authorities must break down cycles of intergenerational difficulties with literacy through family literacy and learning programmes.”

So, what of my adult who finds reading hard? Or the folk joining classes, who don’t think reading or the library are for them? I have a responsibility to push the value of such things. I can work with her to help improve her reading ability and her confidence, but more important work is possibly working with people to improve their access and their choice. We talk of the importance of reading with our children and grandchildren; we talk of the importance of choice in what books are read; we talk about the benefits the children will gain and how we shouldn’t put them off reading if it’s hard for us, as enjoying reading (and the space around reading) is a gift.

Literacy cannot be perceived as something that needs to be ‘done to’, but ‘done with’, and valuing literacy is the greatest step.

Note: my new-found understanding of the use of the word ‘boring’ has made a great difference to parenting small children too. Now, if either child declares something is boring, I’m quick to ask if they are finding it hard!

Valuing everyday writing

Earlier in the week, I shared the above photo on Twitter. It is the brainstorm we drew out as a class when considering our own everyday writing practices. We found it fell quite short of the expected writing for a functional skills English qualification, so we talked a bit about why.

I have found this has proved to be a hugely valuable activity with adult literacy learners, yet it could easily be overlooked in our pursuit of the ‘right’ type of writing. Unfortunately, without realising it, I think that approach can alienate and separate the really amazing writing practices that many adults value in their everyday lives. In fact, a closed-in focus on the ‘chosen’ few writing types devalues the many other types of writing we may all do on a day-to-day basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that it needs to be a manageable thing if we have to be testing people. Someone, somewhere has to make decisions about the parameters of those tests and therefore what writing would best represent it. But it is easy then, as tutors, to focus only on the test and thus fail to recognize the wonderful writing opportunities that are all around us all every day.

The brainstorm I shared was just one group, but I continued the conversation throughout the week which each of my adult groups. The majority of contributions were actually quite similar to these examples, but there was some variety. I’d cheekily posted on Twitter that poetry was missing as our poet was absent, but by Wednesday morning one learner had added writing poems as it is something they love and “it helps me sort out what I see and think about the world”. Powerful and empowering stuff, eh? And could easily have been missed if we were too busy worrying about how to write an effective sub-heading, but not stopping to focus on the bigger picture.

Another surprise is always how few of the learners use email. Very few. Those who do mainly fall into two camps, as far as I can see. One camp is the younger generation, returning to learning to ‘upskill’ to that required and desired level 2 qualification. The other camp is those folk who use email at work. That said, it shouldn’t be assumed this is entirely a digital literacy problem as another surprising innovation was someone saying they read articles in blogs. Our poet then said she had been thinking about blogging, but didn’t have the confidence (I know that feeling!). The reaction from the group was hugely supportive and encouraging.

I was able to link from our own writing practices by asking if anyone had written an article in “real-life”. In classes where no one had, I shared a real-life article that I have recently written for my local village newspaper. However, some had written articles before, mainly for work, school or community newsletters, including links to charity work, so when we did move into our focus on how to write articles, we had a solid real-life basis to talk about.

Making space for reading for pleasure

Following on from making space for writing, it felt like time to make some space for reading for pleasure. It is well reported that people who read for pleasure are more likely to be academically successful (and, according to the National Literacy Trust, have better mental wellbeing too). This is due to many aspects of reading, not least experiencing language’s rhythms and a wide vocabulary, but particularly because if it is intrinsically rewarding then we are more likely to do more of it. This creates a virtuous circle as we get better and better at reading, and are able to stretch to new texts and enjoy reading more and more (I talk about this here in relation to writing and to my own enjoyment).

However, it is one thing to stand in a classroom and tell adults to read more, but how can we actually facilitate it? Through using questioning in my adult literacy classes, I have found there are multiple barriers to reading in people’s everyday lives. The most often cited issue is a lack of time but also not knowing what to read or not having access to suitable books are issues. (There is another unspoken issue here about perception too – whether reading for pleasure is for ‘the likes of me’).

The Quick Reads series of books was created exactly for this purpose. Previously, the only suitable books for adult emergent readers (a term taken from ‘Reading for Pleasure and Reading Circles for Adult Emergent Readers‘) was children’s books or possibly patronizing abridged texts. The Quick Reads series look good, like books suitable for adults, are approachable and appealing, and are usually low cost.

I had decided to make time for reading for pleasure with two specific groups and what better time than the last session before Christmas. I knew this would be good work to continue at the women’s centre, based on need, plus a class on campus because several of the group had said they wanted to make time for reading more.

Due to the different needs of the two groups, I approached the activity in different ways.  I selected ‘Looking for Captain Poldark’ to read (and, I’ll be honest, that decision was purely based on availability and affordability). The women’s group were delighted with their books and really eager to start reading. We’d just been talking about the role of books in families and family learning, and I had shared some picture books, talking about the shared reading space between grown-ups and children. With that mindset in place, all the group were pleased to have a book that was ‘theirs’ and some wanted to start reading straight away. I did first ask them to consider the cover and if it appealed. Could they guess the story? The group dived into the reading right away and throughout their reading were stopping to talk through, plus share their thoughts and feelings on what they’d read.

With the second group, I approached it in a more structured way, following the Quick Reads guidance here, as that suited the group. We also looked at the cover – did they like it? What did it mean? Could they guess anything about the story from the cover? I then indicated the blurb and we then discussed what we now knew about the story. Having talked through their initial reactions, the group fell silent as they sat reading. You could have heard a pin drop, which was amazing because this is a usually lively and vocal group! They were no less active, however, than the first group. This reminded me it’s important to allow time when reading, especially not to interrupt even though it’s tempting to. To see them all so engrossed was inspirational to me and, in itself, proved the value of the activity.

The feedback from both groups was excellent, all agreeing they’d enjoyed the opportunity, plus making a commitment to keep on reading. My favourite comment: “I feel like I’m in it; I feel like I’m there”, which greatly sums up one of the many benefits of reading for pleasure.

I’m looking forward to finding out if any of the group managed to make the time to read any more over the Christmas holidays.

Making space for writing

For the last year or so, I have been teaching at an inner-city women’s centre. Mindful that reading and writing in everyday life increases success in literacy, I wanted to talk with the group and see what sort of reading or writing they do in their own everyday lives.

I introduced the discussions, asking the women to share their own personal literacy habits, but also making explicit reference to the fact that the more writing they do, the better they will get at writing, etc. I also shared my own experiences of this.

It became quickly obvious that there some members of the group that didn’t read much or write at all in their everyday lives. There can be many reasons for this but, with this particular group, I believed one of the reasons might be a lack of resource. Some of the women are living in difficult housing situations, which can be one of the reasons they might get referred to the centre. One woman is in temporary accommodation with her three children, another is in sheltered accommodation, a third is living in a hostel for women leaving prison.

In the following session I talked to the women about writing and shared some stories from the past where people had found writing an empowering act. When discussing everyday writing, we had considered personal diaries and journals, but I also now shared with the women the concept of “commonplace books”*. I shared some of my own journal with the group, reading aloud some of the quotes and notes I have collected (especially those that would resonate or make the group laugh!).

Although we often supply notebooks for class use, plus pens and paper and folders, etc, we hadn’t previously identified a need for helping the women to access materials for their own personal use. It might sound like a small gesture, but I gave all the women their own notebook. I told them it was for their own personal use and I let them know that I wouldn’t be checking up on their writing in anyway, although they were very welcome to share if they wished to.

Immediately there were some suggestions for what the notebook could be used for. Recording recipes, writing poetry, storing quotes, sorting through personal thoughts and issues were just some of the suggestions. I was extremely pleased to notice that some of the women wrote their name and “commonplace book” on the front cover. They all agreed that keeping their commonplace books would be a great target for the year and we thought about how writing would help them, plus in more ways than just improving their literacy skills.

I was struck by the importance of making space for writing. That’s not just physical space, but a mental or even emotional space too. Virginia Wolf stated women need “a room of one’s own” to be able to write and, again, she didn’t just mean a physical space. She meant the time, the resource, to know there’s food on the table and that the world hasn’t stopped turning as we’ve taken time out of it to write. For some of these women that is a massive challenge. If you are “couch surfing”, in temporary accommodation, or being moved from one social housing to the next, pushed from pillar to post, how can you make space to write or to even value writing?

I’m hoping those notebooks start to make that space. Even if only one woman picks up her pen, it will be worth it.

Note: I am also working to make space for reading, so watch for a future blog article.

*definition of commonplace books from Wikipedia:
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator’s particular interests.