According to statistics, 2.5 million people in Britain struggle to read. But since 2015, Shaftesbury’s Read Easy volunteers have been helping locals improve their literacy skills. ThisIsAlfred heard how the coaching has boosted the confidence of one Shaftesbury man so much, he’s taken to the stage.
“What I am very aware of is that if you can’t read in this day and age, you are incredibly intelligent. You have to find other devices to get through life. Your brain works brilliantly, in different ways,” said Phoebe Fortescue.
Phoebe has been a Read Easy tutor in Shaftesbury for four years. The not-for-profit group that she volunteers with started life in Dorset. Ginny Williams-Ellis, a literacy tutor at Dorchester Prison, saw how confidential, one-to-one teaching could encourage people who were learning to read.
I was surprised by the statistics showing that so many people face challenges with their reading. Phoebe explained the issues. “Some of it is dyslexia. If you have problems in primary school, once you get to secondary school you don’t get the individual help and you just fall behind. Some people haven’t had the opportunities to learn. We have some young people who are still coming forward, who have fallen through the net,” said Phoebe.
Phoebe introduced me to her ‘student’, Peter. He didn’t want me to use his last name. Peter received a fair amount of help in school, but two decades after leaving full-time education, he decided to contact Read Easy for help. “Reading wasn’t my strongest point at school. That was before they had all these fancy iPads, with text to speech on them. So in a way I didn’t really learn,” said Peter, who has attended a weekly, 45-minute, one-to-one Read Easy sessions with Phoebe for the last two years.
Whilst some people have experienced bullying or felt embarrassed at being unable to read well, thankfully Peter’s school days were enjoyable and without incident. “All the teachers were really good, but I never really learned how to really read properly. The format was always that you had to read a sentence and write it down, so I could never get it quite right in the classroom, even though I did receive quite a bit of help,” said Peter.
Peter did progress to college but there was an emphasis on IT skills there and he found it a challenge. “Everything was all about how to use a computer, so it was always that ‘Catch 22’. If you don’t know how to use a work programme you are always going to be slightly slower.”
Today there are applications that allow you to dictate as your words are typed but the technology wasn’t available then. Peter is confident about using an iPad, but he says he can’t get the most from his device without having better reading skills. “I learned slowly through my brothers how to navigate myself but I don’t really use all the features on it. And I hear of lots of people using lots of gimmicky programs and I just use Google basically,” said Peter.
Peter decided to ask for help from the Read Easy programme. “I heard about it through the Shaftesbury Arts Centre. I tried it out and it seems to be going quite well. Phoebe has been really good in trying to get me to learn to read,” Peter explained.
Phoebe explained that there are some introductory books. “We’ve worked through a book called ‘Yes, We Can Read’ or there’s another one called ‘Turning Pages’. And you start learning the phonetics and go back to basics,” she said. “Within the 45 minutes, we’ll probably read for about 20 minutes or half an hour. And then we play word games. Peter loves words. We will make really long words out of a lot of letters.”
Phoebe has given Peter an abridged version of a novel written by former British Army infantry soldier Andy McNab. SAS and military stories are not everyone’s cup of tea. Phoebe says that there is some choice over theme and mood of material.
“The library has a lot of books that go with the course, so you start on very simple books, with a lot of pictures. Some of the books you might think are a bit babyish but they’re getting much better at writing more adult, simple-read books,” she said.
“These ‘quick reads’ are a condensed version of a book like Andy McNab’s. They are written in simple language but it’s still exciting. The subject of this book is the Taliban,” said Phoebe, holding the thin volume. That is certainly not babyish. “They are wonderful in the library at talking and helping them to chose a book that they would like.”
Peter told me that he was enjoying Andy McNab’s writing about Afghanistan and he joked that he is not going to launch any military action. “I am reading sections of it and it seems to be going quite well. I haven’t read all of it. Most of the words seems to be going into place,” he said. Of course, Read Easy members don’t wake up one day and magically find that they can suddenly read everything. Reading skills develop over time. “Maybe in two years I will be a lot more advanced than I am now,” said Peter.
Phoebe has been helping Peter with everyday skills by giving him restaurant menus to read. She opened her bag and produced a menu from a well-known Shaftesbury establishment. I quickly realised how daunting picking up a menu might be for someone without reading skills, especially with the more recent food trends. We all laughed at the challenge of reading ‘quinoa’. I remembered the first time I had seen it on a menu. I had pronounced it as ‘quinn-noah’ for months until corrected.
The menu descriptions were tough because they were basically Italian or Spanish. “Chorizo, pancetta, foccacia, arancini, gherkin salsa,” read Phoebe, as if she was reciting a specials board. “I kind of got defeated by them,” said Peter. I felt his frustration from his choice of word. “Some of them I can read, some of them I can’t. It’s not perfect. It’s early days. My brother went to Japan and the menus there have pictures. You can pick up what you really want. In England, it’s all in words and that can mean anything,” he said.
Peter acknowledges that Read Easy has made a real difference in his life. He loves being part of Shaftesbury Arts Centre productions and, with Phoebe’s help, he was able to memorise song lyrics so he could join the chorus of last year’s ‘Mack and Mabel’ musical. He also had a minor speaking part in this year’s pantomime, ‘The Nutcracker’.
“It was a huge boost to his confidence getting some lines in the panto,” said Phoebe, with clear pride in Peter’s achievement in that show and in last year’s musical. “We went through the song and he learnt it off by heart so that when he went to audition, he could sing it,” she said.
“I probably won’t have the right voice for it, but it was fun to give it a go,” said Peter. Whilst Phoebe can’t help with musical vocal training, she’s good at coaching for reading and Peter hopes to audition for greater speaking parts in future productions. “I am probably not at the stage of learning a whole book by Shakespeare. I’m probably just going to have little parts where I can walk on and walk off stage. I’ve been through one Shakespeare play and learning the lines is a killer, so I probably won’t ever get to that point. But if I can learn to read more, maybe,” said Peter.
He is keen to praise Phoebe as ‘the best teacher’. I asked why. “She got me to read a book and that has to be a good improvement,” he said. Phoebe has seen Peter’s abilities grow during their sessions. “The whole deportment changes. The confidence it gives people in everyday life is fantastic,” she said. Peter was beaming at that point and he gave Phoebe a ‘double thumbs up’.
The pair meet for tutoring each week in The Grosvenor Arms and Phoebe is grateful that the venue offers them a space. “When we first used to meet in the hotel, Peter was incredibly shy, particularly with the receptionist. Now when we meet, we greet people. We are very happy to chat to anybody who happens to be there,” said Phoebe.
Understandably, she is keen for anyone who wants to improve their reading skills to join the free, individual sessions. “It’s a case of encouraging people to take the first step and come forward,” she said.
“They should try to learn. It is never too late,” added Peter. “Give it a go. Try it out. And if the worst thing happened, they can always walk out. Or they can stay and improve themselves,” he smiled.
If you would like to volunteer with Read Easy as a tutor or if you or a friend would like help improving your reading, call Jenny Pope, the local organiser, on 07748 977330 or visit ReadEasy.org.uk.