Reading for pleasure is core to our work. The term itself can be problematic, conjuring up images of a frivolous pursuit and a focus on fiction. But we use it in the sense of reading beyond the purely functional, undertaken according to individual choice and encompassing fictional and factual text of all kinds.
Unsurprisingly, impact research with groups of adult learners, supported by their local library, has shown engaging adults in reading for pleasure can make a real difference to their motivation to learn as well as developing their confidence and their skills. It's also demonstrated that this creative activity can be integrated into regular literacy provision, bringing benefits not only for reading but for writing, speaking and listening as learners reflect on and share views about what they have read. Now new research from the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy reinforces these findings and stresses the idea of 'connectedness' both to the reading material and other readers gained from reading for pleasure.
Our approach has been to marry advocacy with practicality. We've been keen to support national initiatives such as Quick Reads and BBC campaigns but also to create our own range of tools to support the use of reading for pleasure. These include the Six Book Challenge, about to enter its sixth year.
"When I started the SBC it had been a long time since I had last read, or been involved with anything to do with studying," explains Nicola Moses, one of hundreds of learners who have now taken part in the Challenge with the support of the public library service in Brent. Nicola has recently passed her Level 2 English and Level 1 Maths. "Coming back to reading and learning was very refreshing and uplifting. Not just for me, to open up my mind again, but also for my son - when I was doing the SBC we began reading together in the evenings."
"At first I thought I couldn't do the Challenge because I wasn't very good at reading," explains Yvonne Hirst, a cleaning supervisor at De Montfort University in Leicester who has been supported two years running by UNISON learning rep Andrew Jennison. "But it has helped me a lot. I'm enjoying reading now whereas I wouldn't pick up a book before."
Prison tutors and library staff have also adopted the Six Book Challenge with enthusiasm and it's now used in around 100 prisons and young offender institutions. "The Challenge has helped our students to understand the value of a good book and how it can help with spelling, punctuation and improve on your vocabulary," reports Martine Fontenelle, literacy tutor at HMP Wandsworth.
But FE and sixth form colleges are the most obvious location for the scheme to reap the biggest rewards for large numbers of students. Northampton College has been running the Challenge for five years with the library promoting its use to tutors across the college. As overall winner of our new awards for best performing organisations, they achieved 215 completers in 2102.
The college found in 2012 that Functional Skills students who took part in the Challenge attained a 78% pass rate as opposed to a 65% pass rate among those who didn't sign up to take part. "It goes beyond the functionality of literacy skills to help with course retention and with students' employability and life skills - as well as being about an enjoyment of reading," explains Deputy Principal John Bexson. "It's invaluable to us at Northampton College."
All of this activity is underpinned by the principle that reading for pleasure has a role to play at every stage of a learner's journey. At whatever level an individual engages with text there's an opportunity for them to enjoy the experience and want to repeat it. As they do, they get a chance to practise their new-found skills and improve them. And so it continues, in a virtuous circle.
With 5.1 million of the working age population in England alone reported to be at or below the literacy level expected of an 11 year old, there's a huge role for the motivational trigger that an enjoyment of reading can provide. The crucial thing is that learners are given the opportunity to embark upon this virtuous circle, even if they choose not to take it up. As author and former SAS soldier Andy McNab, currently Ambassador for the Six Book Challenge, puts it: "It's never too late to start reading. And I guarantee once you start you won't be able to stop."
Find out more about the Six Book Challenge and consider running it at your college, prison, workplace, public library or school.
If you'd like more information please contact Genevieve Clarke on Genevieve.Clarke@readingagency.org.uk.