In the wake of last month’s Bridport Literary Festival – a celebration of the written word and all the ways it enhances lives – we discover Read Easy Bridport, a charity working to make sure everyone can enjoy those benefits…
Reading is something most of us take for granted. Words are everywhere, and being able to understand them – often at just a glance – is a huge part of how we navigate the world around us. Not to mention the joy of reading for pleasure. But just imagine if you couldn’t do it; if, rather than representing things and ideas, all but the most familiar words were just lines and shapes. Imagine how different your life would be.
The National Literacy Trust says around one in six adults in England have “very poor” literacy skills – defined as being able to “understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources.” For these people, “reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems.” This is also known, somewhat baldly, as being “functionally illiterate”. In Bridport, then – population around 13,500 – about 1,800 adults are struggling with this basic skill.
Slipping through the net
How does this happen? How do people reach adulthood with inadequate literacy skills? “Sometimes it’s home circumstances, sometimes emotional or developmental problems, and sometimes patchy school provision, but mostly it’s a poorly designed state education system,” says Alli Baldwin, a literacy specialist and team leader with Read Easy Bridport. “At primary level, attention is focused on the children who are struggling, but in secondary school the emphasis is often on the most capable. If kids leave primary school without having reached the right level, it becomes harder and harder for them to catch up as they go through secondary school.
“At Year 7 – the start of secondary school – kids from different primary schools are mixed in together and those who are already behind will often slip back further. The end result is school leavers trying to enter the job market without the skills they need to thrive.”
This unfortunate situation is usually no reflection on individual intelligence – quite the reverse, in fact, as most adult non-readers become very clever at hiding this gap in their education. Jay Blades, presenter of BBC1’s Repair Shop and a skilled furniture restorer, was recently the subject of a programme about his decision to learn to read at the age of 51. He admits having often said he couldn’t fill in a form because he’d forgotten his glasses, and asking someone else to do it for him. Like around 10% of the UK population, Blades has dyslexia, an additional challenge but by no means a barrier to achieving full and fluent literacy.
So ‘coming out’ as a non-reader is difficult, but it’s a huge first step towards a different life, one in which reading is a source of pleasure – not, as Blades puts it, “like giving yourself a headache … pure pain.” Luckily help is available to anyone wanting to learn. Read Easy is a national charity with local branches, each of which operates independently with a team of volunteer administrators and reading coaches. The charity started in Dorset and grew out of the Shannon Trust, which works to improve literacy in prisons (shockingly, around half of prisoners either can’t read at all or struggle to do so). The trust provides excellent support and teaching while prisoners are in jail, but there was a need for additional support after their release. This expanded into literacy work in the general population, and so Read Easy was born.
A team of dedicated volunteers
As a retired teacher, Alli Baldwin was looking to use her skills in a voluntary role, so she approached Read Easy Bridport. “I initially said I’d like to help someone with their reading,” she says, “but Ali Turnock, the charity’s fundraiser, phoned me up and said they needed people on the voluntary management team. I agreed to get involved in that way, and now I spend about two days a week on this work.”
Alli explains that the management team also has a deputy team leader, treasurer, secretary, publicity champion and referrals coordinator, as well as someone to look after safeguarding, data protection, venues and recruitment. There’s a reading coordinator, too, who looks after the team of reading coaches. “The reading coordinator is particularly important as they organise training for the coaches, introduce them to their reader, and co-ordinate and support their work,” Alli says. “Coaches’ training is all done online and organised by our head office, although it’s paid for locally.”
Various situations give adults the impetus to decide to improve their literacy: many want to read with their children or grandchildren; others find that life is lived increasingly online, to the point where it’s almost impossible to get by without reading. Whatever the reason, when a reader – as the adult learners are known – comes forward, they are treated confidentially with understanding and care, not judgement. They are assessed and paired with a coach, and the two agree a schedule. Together they work through the five books in the Turning Pages series (specially designed for adults) and usually meet once a week, sometimes for as little as 20 minutes.
“It’s very tiring, like learning another language,” says Alli. “Some readers may need to begin with letter recognition. There’s no timescale and people work at their own pace – they can take as long as they need. Some coaches might use additional resources such as magnetic letters – whatever’s needed for the reader to progress.”
When they’ve finished, the reader gets a certificate and is referred to the local library or other organisations that can help them take their reading further.
Keeping the charity afloat
Read Easy Bridport – which also covers Beaminster, Crewkerne and Ilminster – relies on fundraising for its finances. As well as individual donations, this includes support from the West Bay Car Boot fund, from which all profits go to charity through a grant scheme run by Bridport Town Council, from the Lions Club and businesses including Waitrose, the Co-operative and Waterstones, and from the Bridport Literary Festival, which has made a donation of £500.
Alli says Bridport Town Council has been immensely supportive in other ways, too, such as providing a room at the Mountfield offices for learning sessions. There’s also a room at the Prout Bridge Project in Beaminster where coaches and readers can meet.
A grant from the Dorset Community Foundation has allowed the charity to make a short promotional film about its work. Among other people, it features Steve, a farmworker who learnt to read with Read Easy Bridport in his late 50s. “I have more confidence and I don’t feel ashamed anymore,” he says of his learning experience. “It’s just like they say – it’s never too late to learn. I would not have done it without Read Easy.”
Learn – and change your life!
Like most charities, the organisation always needs more money; one thing it’s not short of, though, is volunteer reading coaches – in fact Alli says there’s a waiting list of people wanting to help. “But we need readers!” she says. “It’s hard to get referrals in this small area, and we know there are plenty of people who could really benefit from our help. We know people are nervous about getting started, but the process isn’t formal at all; it’s as relaxed as we can make it. I’d like to encourage anyone who struggles with reading to come forward for help. It will change your life!”
Read Easy Bridport is looking for several volunteers to work on its management team. For more details visit the website or to volunteer contact Linda Ryall: firstname.lastname@example.org. For help learning to read, contact Christine Walsh: 07707 259 905 / email@example.com.
The charity’s short film about its work is available on YouTube here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxLNTpvf0ME