Reading Ahead is the new name for the Six Book Challenge.
Southend Libraries' impressive Six Book Challenge journey began five years ago in partnership with Southend Adult Community College (SACC), with initial impetus from a former library staff member who was also a part-time Skills for Life volunteer. The library service had identified adult learners as a priority group, and the Challenge offered multiple, mutually beneficial opportunities. These included supporting students' skills development and progression to further learning, raising awareness of materials on offer by Southend Libraries for learners at all levels and engaging people in reading for pleasure, often for the first time.
Link with the college
"The Challenge provided the perfect partnership opportunity," explains Simon Wallace, communities and social inclusion manager. "Initially we started small, targeting a few classes at a time." Library team members gave promotional talks and began a busy programme of informal library discovery tours. A library-based Skills for Life reading group, the Chatty Readers, was set up, with several members signing up for the Challenge.
The Challenge's use of incentives to motivate and recognise achievement chimed with college tutors, library staff and learners. 32 people got involved in 2010; by 2011 that had more than doubled with 36 people completing the Challenge. The partnership also saw students and tutors joining or rejoining their local library.
SACC tutors found the Challenge fitted well around curriculum delivery and other learning opportunities, extending students' breadth of reading beyond college. "Southend Libraries and Southend Adult Community College provide a great supportive partnership, and the Six Book Challenge is a highly successful method of engaging existing and potential learners in reading for pleasure as part of their skills development," said Sarah Holmes, SACC's director of foundation learning.
In 2014, SACC Challenge completers who gathered to receive their certificates endorsed its beneficial effects. For example, Stuart Bridge, 32, struggled with reading at school due to physical disability, but had made huge strides in literacy and confidence through his SACC classes. He read newspaper articles and Quick Reads for the Challenge and said: "I enjoyed completing it and now I enjoy reading: I can get into the story more, and improving my reading skills has also helped me with my studies."
Fellow SACC student Yenuit, 38, came to the UK from Thailand in 2001. A mum to two sons, she has been taking English classes: "I like reading and I liked doing the Six Book Challenge; reading is very helpful for improving my English and it gives me confidence and helps me understand what words mean."
Meanwhile Jan, 61, who has a mental health condition, had very low self-esteem when she first started taking classes. "Not being confident about my reading made everyday life hard. I couldn't understand letters sent to me; I'd just put them aside and ignore them," she explained. "I enjoyed every minute of doing the Challenge. It's encouraged me to read and now I can read easy books. Now I'll have a go at reading letters I get sent, with my support worker's help, and I feel more confident in everyday life."
Partnership with community groups
With SACC's delivery of the Challenge becoming increasingly self-sufficient, Southend Libraries began using the Challenge as a simple but effective tool for partnership working with community groups. By 2012 this had helped swell participation levels to 230 local people, with 107 completers.
"A large part of our work is meeting community groups away from a library. We made a conscious effort to do this following the recent opening of The Forum Southend, an award -winning library and learning facility in the town centre" explains Simon. "The Six Book Challenge is an important strand of our offer to local communities."
The ever-growing roll call of partners includes Southend United Football Club, Just Listening To You, a community-led mental health support group, and My Town Southend website which recently filmed interviews at this year's local Challenge launch event. A promotional video featuring Challenge participants was made in 2014 to further highlight the scheme.
For several years staff at Southend's HM Revenue and Customs offices have enjoyed Challenge participation and a range of reading-related activities thanks to Public and Commercial Services union learning reps with support from Southend Libraries. These fit in nicely with wider educational opportunities offered by the union and provide a discreet 'way in' for any employees who might want to access literacy support.
Promoting Mood-boosting Books alongside the Challenge
Meanwhile community interest company Active Life Southend has been signposting people to Mood-boosting Books and the Six Book Challenge. "It's good to offer it as part of the holistic approach we take to promoting active and healthy lives for everyone in Southend," says Active Life's Sarah Potts. "Reading is, for example, a great way to relax; it's really important and we should all be doing it."
Newest partners include Milton Community Partnership and Streets Ahead Southend which works to support and empower local families and neighbourhoods to sustain a better quality of life for everyone. Southend University Hospital's library team has also begun using the Challenge, to help improve reading and spoken English skills amongst lower pay band staff such as porters and ward assistants, for many of whom English is not their first language. Meanwhile, the new Macmillan Cancer Information and Support Centre at the hospital has hosted library staff talks promoting programmes such as Mood-boosting Books and the Six Book Challenge to people attending its 'Elevenses' club.
Championing the Challenge
Southend's Libraries staff are fully briefed about the Challenge in order to welcome and sign people up. Both annual Challenge launch and celebration events now routinely secure local media coverage and the scheme is promoted through social media, local newsletters and the annual Essex Book Festival.
This is helped by the endorsement of an enthusiastic local champion, professional jazz trumpeter (and ex-librarian) Digby Fairweather and regular support from the local mayor, both of whom are on hand to present certificates to completers.
In 2014, Southend Libraries won a gold award for achieving 164 Six Book Challenge completers and look likely to secure their aim of 200 for 2015. "It's good to have a target but it's not just a numbers game,"says Simon. "Seeing people discover and enjoy reading for pleasure through the Six Book Challenge gives you a great buzz."
Find out more about Reading Ahead
Order materials to run Reading Ahead at your organisation.