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Let’s start a brand new story

One in six UK adults of working age struggles with reading and writing. Cathy Rentzenbrink, director of adult literacy initiative Quick Reads, which launches its new series of titles today, explains why bringing the pleasure of reading to everyone is so important.

laurel and hardy ornaments readingImagine not being a confident reader. Hard, right? Yet one in six adults in the UK struggles with literacy. It’s the 10-year anniversary of the charity Quick Reads this week and I’ve been the director for nearly four years.

When I arrived I knew a fair bit about some of the causes and effects of low literacy because my dad couldn’t read and write well until he was 30. His story is rooted in Cork in the 1950s. He was the youngest of nine children in a poor but happy family; then, when his mother died suddenly when he was seven, the family collapsed. No one was looking after him, and when he got teased at school for being dirty, he decided not to go anymore.

He braved adult literacy classes when he was 30 because he needed to write shift reports. “I’ll never be able to do exams,” he said to the tutor, “but I need to know how to do sentences.”

Though I had some first-hand knowledge, over the past years I’ve realised how narrow my knowledge was. I didn’t know how many people arrive in this country, often burdened with terrible stories, not speaking English, indeed often not very literate in their own languages.

“It hasn’t really occurred to us to think about what it might be like to be a 30-year-old who can’t write in sentences, to consider how difficult it would be to negotiate life without the skills we take for granted.”

I didn’t know how many people leave the army, often struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, often with low skills. I did not know the extent to which the prisons of this country are full of people, men mainly, who have hardly any basic skills, who are extraordinarily uneducated and ill-prepared for post-prison life, for the challenges of finding a job and somewhere to live – the key things that will help them not to reoffend.

I didn’t realise what a live problem it was. I thought it was something we were getting better at, yet the recent OECD report shows that not only do we rank 22nd out of 24 countries in literacy, but the UK is going backwards. We are creating future generations of people who are unable to cope with the necessary administration of their lives, let alone be poised to see the benefits of reading for pleasure.

The core of what we do at Quick Reads is work with the book industry to publish short books by bestselling authors that are full of the action and emotion you’d expect to find in the authors’ other works, but which have been written, edited and designed to be easier to access for the less confident reader. Quick Reads are the bridge between literacy and literature. They’re the next step after learning the basics, a crucial tool in the journey from being a non-reader to being someone who has the world of books and words at her or his disposal.

quick reads booksWhen I talk to those who I’ve come to think of as the hyper-literate (and I include myself in this group, due to my very literate mother) – those of us who can’t remember learning to read, who grew up in houses full of books, who believe that the world of words is ours – I find that it isn’t that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.

It hasn’t really occurred to us to think about what it might be like to be a 30-year-old who can’t write in sentences, to consider how difficult it would be to negotiate life without the skills we take for granted. We need to care. We need to care about what’s happening in our workplaces, our schools, our prisons, our libraries, our day care centres.

Nothing about addressing low levels of literacy in adults is easy. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Here’s to another 10 years of creating more readers, one book at a time.

Galaxy Quick Reads are bite-sized books written by best-selling authors which cost only £1. They are available from bookshops, supermarkets and online or can be borrowed from libraries across the country. For more information, visit www.readingagency.org.uk/quickreads

@CathyReadsBooks
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Written by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink is director of Quick Reads and author of The Last Act of Love. Her favourite thing is talking to strangers about books.