Sheffield charity seeks to break stigma of adult literacy

Written by James Wilson

Sitting at home during the Covid lockdown in November 2020, Harley Jones-Ryley imagined what life must be like for people unable to read the fast-changing national guidelines.

This moment of empathy triggered a movement of charitable action. In September this year, Jones-Ryley created Read Easy Sheffield to help individuals in need of support with their literacy skills.

“During the pandemic I just imagined not being able to read the travel restrictions or information leaflets about Covid jabs and started to think about how isolating this must feel.

“That was my motivation for starting Read Easy, I wanted to make sure we could help as many people as possible to never have to go through that loneliness,” Jones-Ryley said.

First established in Dorchester and Weymouth in 2010, by literacy tutor Ginny Williams-Ellis, Read Easy is now a nationwide initiative with over 60 groups in place.

Having started its working operations in September, Read Easy Sheffield hopes to officially launch in early 2022 after providing formal training to its first group of reading coaches.

“Creating spaces”

Jones-Ryley, Read Easy Sheffield’s Team Leader, said the idea came from a “clear need” for a charitable, free-to-access organisation focusing on adult literacy in the city.

“From speaking to organisations across the city, there was just an overwhelming enthusiasm for creating spaces for people to access free confidential coaching that happens on a one-to-one basis.”

This idea of “creating spaces”, both in terms of the dialogue associated with adult literacy and actual physical locations for people to feel comfortable learning how to read, serves to reflect one of Read Easy Sheffield’s main strategies to help eradicate the stigma attached to adult literacy.

Jones-Ryley spoke of being surprised at how many people had opened up about their own struggles with reading and writing since founding Ready Easy Sheffield.

Image: Read Easy Sheffield

“A lot of people who I’ve talked to have admitted to struggling to read growing up, and for me the real joy has been opening up that dialogue and creating spaces where people can say that they would benefit from the work that we do,“ Jones-Ryley said.

Jones-Ryley also believes the confidential and one-to-one nature of the organisation’s coaching sessions, taking place at mutually agreed locations such as a school or library, helps to make what can often seem a very daunting process a lot less intimidating and more personal.

A nationwide problem

From a national perspective, adult literacy continues to represent a deep-rooted problem impacting upon all levels of society.

According to statistics from the UK National Literacy Trust, one in six adults in England have very low literacy skills. This amounts to 16.4% of the overall population.

One in four adults in Scotland, one in five in Northern Ireland, one in eight in Wales also experience problems with low literacy.

Around 10% of the UK population have some level of dyslexia, which can make reading and writing especially challenging. In prisons, nearly 50% of inmates have a literacy rate deemed below what is required for successful employment.

Image: Read Easy Sheffield

Melanie Cornish-Fleet, Founder and CEO of charitable organisation Bringing Words to Life based in the North East, said the main reasons for continued nationwide problems with adult literacy are related to education and confidence issues.

Melanie said: “In my experience literacy issues in adulthood always come back to relationships with school and education. This is not to say our education system is failing everyone as it isn’t, but those I work with that struggle with literacy and communication usually have had a bad experience of school.”

“They were perhaps left behind and therefore their confidence is impacted due to not understanding. The knock-on effect of that then, in some cases, becomes a reluctance to learn, behavioural issues and decreased attendance,” Melanie added.

Changing terminology

A second key component of Read Easy Sheffield’s work to combat adult literacy stigma is to help alter the “unhelpful” terminology which is often associated with it.

Jo Purvis, Read Easy Sheffield’s Publicity Organiser, thinks it is unnecessary to refer to people’s reading ages which discussing literacy levels.

Purvis said: “I find reading ages to be unhelpful. If you talk about the average reading age and then refer to children, it can sound really patronising even without meaning to be.”

Read Easy Sheffield’s Team Leader Jones-Ryley also declared the organisation’s opposition to the use of language such as ‘illiteracy’ and ‘illiterate’ which apply negative connotations to being unable to read.

Instead, the group look to remove these outdated labels by using terms such as ‘non-readers’ or ‘new readers’ in order to strip back such negative connotations.

The organisation is currently fundraising to help their coaches receive the resources and support they need, with £375 of a £500 target raised so far.

Jones-Ryley said the primary vision for Read Easy Sheffield was to become a well-run, sustainable charity in which coaches and readers feel really supported.

“We look at every person as being a potential reader who’s just waiting for the right opportunity.”

Written by James Wilson

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