Promoting literacy

Posted on September 1, 2009 in Journalism

LITERACY plays a vital role in improving people’s lives.  Not just in enhancing their employability, but also, according to research by the National Literacy Trust, promoting their mental health, well-being and family relationships.

Councils around the country are finding out that boosting literacy skills can bring wider benefits for the community, says Robert Bullard.

Local Government Chronicle  –  August 2009

Year of Reading

In 2008 the NLT ran the national Year of Reading, with funding from central government and the support of councils.  Since then the Improvement & Development Agency has assessed many projects, of which the most successful offer valuable lessons for others.

Many of the ingredients for promoting literacy in communities are familiar: the importance of leadership or support from senior mangers, strategic backing, the value of working across departments and in partnership with other organisations, and of having dedicated project staff.  But there are other, less predictable, lessons too.  Among them, the value of taking literacy projects beyond just reading, out of the classroom, and making them fun.


Among the projects highlighted by the IdeA is Peterborough’s Film Awards, now in its fourth year.  From school-year four on, young people across the city are encouraged to make films and submit their entries into a citywide competition.  There are two categories, drama and documentary, both linked to the school curriculum.

“We try to make the award ceremony as like Hollywood’s Oscars as possible, with sponsorship from local businesses, the BBC and others doing the judging, real prizes – and even a red carpet,” says Ms MacPhee, project director of Peterborough City Council’s READ.WRITE.inspire campaign.

“The premise is that, to make the films, the children have do to do the storyboarding, scriptwriting, work in groups and have discussions – and that requires speaking, writing, reading and listening,” she explains.

“There are also links with IT skills.  This year there were 21 prizes, and over 1000 children and parents attended the awards ceremony.  Schoolchildren really love the whole process and it has proved good at motivating boys in particular,” she adds.

As part of the National Year of Reading, Sheffield City Council set up a variety of literacy initiatives, including storytelling workshops, book swaps and reading groups.  One innovative project is the city’s 24-hour, live ‘Midsummer Shakespeare,’ which takes place in the city centre.

Run by schools and drama groups, anyone is invited to get involved, with passers-by encouraged to read aloud from plays and poetry, and to make use of a box of costumes and props for added effect.

In a similar vein, The Learning Trust, in Hackney, which delivers all education services in the borough, ran a poster campaign that made the point that reading is a vital part of everyday life rather than just a classroom activity.  One of its posters showed a father and son reading a manual in order to fix a bike; another showed a girl reading a magazine at a bus stop.

“It is important to encourage a love of reading within families and communities, as well as the more academic environment [of schools],” says Andreas Adamides, the Trust’s head of regeneration.

“We want to encourage people to read for reading’s sake and to have an enquiring mind … so that they can lean how to learn, through asking the rights questions.”

Apart from a partnership project work with the National Literacy Trust, that distributed a book to all children in year five in Hackney, the Trust has made comparatively little use of schools in its promotion of literacy.  Instead, it gives grants to the local voluntary and community groups, and supports them with an education advisor, to help them develop their projects.  And in the first round, 16 grants were awarded of around £5000 each.

Funding projects through the voluntary and community sector, explains Mr Adamides, has enabled the Trust to build on the experience of what already exists within local communities, and to build on different approaches to learning rather than promoting a of ‘one size fits all’ model.

He explains that oral traditions and the use of storytelling, for example, are more significant among the Turkish and Kurdish communities, which are among the lower achieving groups in the borough.  In one project therefore, a grandmother told her stories aloud, in Turkish.  These included traditional stories and her memories of coming to England, which her grandchild then wrote down in English.

But working with the voluntary sector and numerous different groups takes time, says Adamides, and the Trust now realises it should have allowed more time for generating their involvement, and for keeping track of all the different activities.  As a result it expects greater uptake of the grants in the second round, later this year.

Promoting literacy

Schools still have a vital role and several councils have run successful voluntary reading schemes where a ‘buddy’ from outside the school reads aloud to children, one-to-one.  Over the last three years Peterborough has gradually extended its reading scheme, which it began by asking employees from local companies to spend an hour each week reading to three children.

“We told employers they had as much responsibility to promoting literacy in Peterborough as anyone else,” says Ms MacPhee.

Both large and small companies have got involved, and one buddy was the council’s chief executive.

“We really went for it, and have never really looked back ever since,” says Ms MacPhee.

In year two the council extended the scheme to parents, supporting them with preparatory sessions and workshops.  The benefits of using parents, explains Ms MacPhee, is that they are not teachers and not teaching assistants – so they are not threatening.

And by asking the parents to formalise their commitment to a minimum of one term, it made them and the children treat the reading as ‘something special.’  In the third year the scheme was extended to sixth form students.

Feedback from teachers includes: ‘Children are generally enjoying, valuing and seeing a purpose in reading’ – ‘Children now read more books on a wider range of subjects, and go to the library more’ – and ‘The writing of children supported by the buddies has improved.’

One benefit the council did not foresee, says Ms MacPhee, has been the positive impact on readers.  Some readers have been doing it for four years, and some have taken on additional children.  Some are training to become full time teachers.  And others have got involved in local schools, either by joining governing bodies or the Parent Teacher Association.  Meanwhile employers report that staff benefit from the scheme.  “They say participating employees are happier,” says Ms MacPhee.

But councils should be aware of their capacity when embarking on projects like these, she warns.  “Having reading buddies, and getting people into schools ever week, can be a logistical challenge…. [and] children will expect readers to turn up.”

Another ingredient to councils’ success has been having a strong marketing brand for their activities.  In Hackney, where 130 languages are spoken, this meant choosing a brand that was ‘bright, snappy and recognisable’, and that a diverse range of people could engage with and feel was relevant to their community.

The resulting ‘Words Unite’ logo, which uses characters from different languages, demonstrates Hackney’s multi-lingual community.  It also emphasises the links between cultures, and helps people with their communication skills.  “We wanted to made sure the message was inclusive, and to encourage people to read in different languages,” says Adamides.”

Ms MacPhee describes Peterborough’s READ.WRITE.inspire brand as ‘very helpful’, and says: “If the brand is successful, then people want to be part of the project.”

Finally, she stresses the need to give the children a ‘real outlet’ for their work – as, for example, the council did by getting its poetry competition winners aired on the local radio and their work printed in the local newspaper.

“The media is their [the children’s] world – if they see their work they will find it meaningful,” says Ms MacPhee.
Find out more

Hakney Learning Trust
Andreas Adamides, head of regeneration.  Tel: 020 8820 7268 or e-mail:

Peterborough City Council
Janet MacPhee, project director, Read.Write.inspire.  Tel: 01733 863962 or e-mail:

Sheffield City Council
Marie Lowe, National Year of Reading co-ordinator.  Tel: 0114 293 0969 or e-mail:
The impact of low literacy

· 41% of employers are concerned about their employees’ basic literacy skills
· 63% of men and 75% of women with very low literacy skills have never had a promotion at work – they are also are more likely to be unemployed and lower paid
· 37% of prisoners are below Level 1 (the expectations of a seven year old), compared with 16% of the general population
· Men and women with the poorest literacy or numeracy skills are less likely to vote in elections
· Lower aspiration levels among adults leads to lower literacy levels among their children

Source: National Literacy Trust

© Robert Bullard.  Not for reproduction without prior permission

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