To Read, Or Not To Read? The Fight For Literacy In the UK.

To read, or not to read, that is the question. In truth, literacy is a complex, multi-layered skill that should not be underestimated or undervalued. Reading is an integral part of our daily lives, from understanding street signs in order to drive, reading reports for work or even following posted regulations that help keep our communities safe.

Technological advances make education, publishing, and even accessing books faster and more efficient in our society today. Despite having these advancements, literacy is still a problem in communities all around the world. One of the master classes for the MA program in Publishing at Kingston University focused on this very issue.

Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP: the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals, was a guest speaker for the master classes held for the Publishing MA students. CILIP represents “A UK workforce of 87,000 information professionals working across the private, public and third sectors to unlock the value of information” (http://www.cilip.org.uk).

In the master class, Nick discussed the vital importance of creating a nation of readers in the UK. A main focus of his seminar was the necessity of properly funded libraries that can collaborate with publishers to provide books and other resources to communities.

CILIP has an inspiring mission, “to build a ‘Nation of Readers’ – a sustainable, thriving ecosystem in which readers can read, researchers can research (and publish) and students can learn” (CILIP Building a Nation of Readers slideshow). Building a nation of readers involves creating the right balance so that libraries can lend, booksellers sell, publishers publish and authors write.

Nick talked to the Persist team about about literacy in the UK and his work. He believes, “Literacy is about equal rights for all, including even children knowing how to read, write, and communicate with others to express their opinion.”

Literacy has many personal benefits including improving mental focus for other tasks, higher job attainment and personal health with lower risk of suffering from mental illness like depression. The ability to read and write effectively from a young age – and reading for pleasure – builds empathy for others along with emotional and physical wellbeing in young readers. Higher literacy levels positively impacts all society according to Nick because, “More literate nations tend to have higher per-capita earnings and innovation in ‘knowledge-intensive’ industries.”

Nick also emphasised that one of the major problem areas in the UK is the inconsistency of literacy skill levels. Older age groups, including the over 50s, have stronger literacy skills than teen readers in the UK. It is a startling fact that, “In 2013/14, England was 23rd out of 23 OECD: [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] nations for teenage literacy.” Responding to the question of why teens have lower literacy levels, he said a major factor was the parents. “There is not enough parental involvement, and teens are spending more time online or playing video games rather than reading.”

Another disturbing factor is that, “Since 2010, approximately 343 public libraries have closed and 500 have been handed over to communities to run.” These library closures have impacted UK communities immensely. Nick added, “Libraries are a social hub that bring diverse community members together, and if you close the libraries then you dissolve the fabric of that community.” Library closures mean loss of jobs, older generations become isolated and there is no resource for students and lower income families to access books and valuable information.

Nick happily included the positive side to this ongoing problem by stating, “I’m an eternal optimist, and I believe that this situation can be changed for the better.” There are a lot of positive strides in raising literacy levels, including increased book sales, and Nick believes, “It is the golden age of children’s literature.” For example, there are books inspired by the gaming world like Assassin’s Creed that draw in young readers, and interactive story apps like Zombie Run. Publishing and promoting more authors from diverse backgrounds will inspire younger readers, because they will see themselves in the stories.

Nick spoke more in depth about the importance of reading programmes like the Kingston University Big Read. These programmes offer free books and provide a common thread for discussion. They connect community members, making it easier to socialise when meeting new people.

He commented, “It is important to have a shared reading experience, for example, the programmes where fathers in prison read the same books as their children in order to break the ice.” Shared reading experiences create meaningful and impactful conversation.

Through his work with CILIP, Nick has many inspiring ideas to improve literacy levels and create a nation of readers. A major opportunity exists in the relationships between libraries and publishers. It is vital that libraries and publishers share information – they know what people are reading.

Making the correct changes with give libraries stronger access to information from publishers, and also to receive more copies of popular books and book club selections at a faster pace. Libraries and publishers need to work together to publish more authors from ethnic minorities, and celebrate books that engage minority and diverse readers.

Literacy is an ongoing struggle all over the world but there is a lot of progress and hope for a brighter future, with equal literacy and attainment for all. One great example, is an independent charity called the National Literacy Trust. It aims to “Improve the reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in the UK’s poorest communities, where up to 40% of people have literacy problems” (https://literacytrust.org.uk).

With the belief that low literacy is intergenerational, the National Literacy Trust focuses on programmes to increase parental involvement and for children in need. One of their programmes, Books-Unlocked, is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and provides free copies of books to prisoners and community reading programmes.

Literacy and books are vital threads that connect all human beings, enabling us to empathise and develop long-lasting relationships with others. Persist urges everyone to help in this important mission to make the world a world of readers.

We are passionate about the importance of reading and know the positive impact books have in making us feel less alone in our daily struggles. Authors and those who pursue a career in the publishing industry understand the unlimited power that words can have in our lives. In order to improve literacy levels the libraries, schools and literacy programmes need support in various ways including book or monetary donations, serving as a tutor, or giving your time in other ways.

How can you help? Let’s get reading together.

Main credited Source:

Web address/link for CILIP slideshow (Building a Nation of Readers) referenced in this article:

(https://www.slideshare.net/CILIP/building-a-nation-of-readers-the-battle-for-literacy-in-the-uk

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