“When you’ve always been able to read and write you take it so for granted you don’t realise how lucky you are. I certainly didn’t.”

On Tuesday 3 November, Milly Johnson addressed the Unionlearn Annual Conference. The theme this year was skills and recovery and Milly spoke about the importance of adult literacy and why she wrote a Quick Read. Here is an extract of her speech.

When you’ve always been able to read and write you take it so for granted you don’t realise how lucky you are. I certainly didn’t.

The timing of being asked to write a Quick Reads coincided with a visit I’d been asked to do at a woman’s prison – New Hall in Wakefield. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had a lovely day there as it happened and I really counted my blessings when I came home. So many of the women there vow never to go back inside again, but they do. And the reason so many of them are stopped from changing their lives lies in their low literacy levels. They will go back into the community armed with good intentions but their choice of jobs is limited because they left school with no exams, they can’t fill in application forms. So they gravitate back to their dysfunctional comfort zones and the cycle begins again.

Until I went into New Hall I hadn’t comprehended how important the skills of being able to read and write competently were. I set myself a task of writing down everything in a single day where I used my skills to read because we just do it, and we don’t realise we are doing it. Looking on the TV to see what’s on, reading a newspaper to see the news, reading a bus timetable, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room passing the time with a magazine, reading labels in supermarkets, following recipes. What if you had baby formula and couldn’t even read how to mix it up? Not being able to read impacts on everything: safety, health, mental health, enjoyment of life, quality of life. I recently had to fill out a form for my mother – an attendance allowance form. 29 pages long. Because I could fill that out, she got money she was entitled to. Even I was almost defeated by that form, so imagine someone who has reduced literary skills tackling it.

The literacy levels in this country are appalling. 1 in 6 adults in England have ‘very poor literacy skills’ (OECD, Survey of Adult Skills, 2015) – over seven million people. This is below the minimum literacy skills required to cope with everyday life. It means reading the instructions on a packet of tablets or a simple road sign can be a challenge. Because we don’t just read for leisure – reading is a life essential skill and its effects are far-reaching.

All this was going on in my head when I was asked to write a Quick Reads book?  And that’s why I said yes. Because I know how little changes can lead to massive changes. I want as many people who can’t read to learn. And what better way to help people to learn than to make them want to learn, making it a pleasant experience, making it not feel like work that will defeat them or patronise them – or even scare them.

Once upon a time, adults who sought help were given the equivalent of Janet and John books, children’s simple stories which did nothing for their already low self-worth. Quick Reads are a selection of stories written by best-selling authors for adults. We’ve all taken care to deliver tales which read every bit as well as our longer novels because we want to encourage not to make people feel incompetent. They look like books for adults – because they are books for adults, with adult themes and language. The only difference is that they’re shorter, the sentences aren’t long and complicated and full of clauses and the vocabulary is simpler. Why use ‘discombobulate’ when ‘confuse’ will do the same job? I defy anyone to read one of these books and spot any real difference to our longer outputs. They’re directed at adults who need help to build up their reading skills, who are off-put by thick tomes of dense passages, but they’re available to anyone and the font is slightly larger too for those with reduced eyesight. Perfect for a ‘quick read’ (ho ho) or for those people who have suffered a stroke or have an illness which means a shorter more easily absorbed story is preferable, something not too taxing – and light enough to hold without too much effort too. Jojo Moyes calls it a ‘gateway drug’ and she’s right; it is a perfect taster for the rich world of books out there, all waiting to be read. When asked to give a quote about why I was involved, I said that reading is a key to a life enriched. Being able to utilise literacy skills opens up a door to a much bigger, more satisfying – and safer – life. 

Simple, straightforward storytelling. No complicated plots to confuse issues, no stupidly long words to make a reader’s eye snag and interrupt concentration. But surprisingly challenging to write. At first, I found myself writing in a way that a five year old child would have rolled their eyes at. So I changed tack, wrote the story which is about four old friends going on a trip to Amsterdam for a hen night and then went back to simplify the words, break up long sentences and it was a worthy and enjoyable challenge.

The storyline is straightforward: The hen is having doubts that the others put down to just wedding nerves. But she’s never quite got over her first love. And lo and behold he turns up on the ferry. And it’s up to the magic of Van Gogh and a day out in Amsterdam to sort out her head for her. It’s about people having dreams that shouldn’t be compared to other people’s dreams because yours is tailor made for you whether that’s to climb Everest or have a pink bath in an ensuite. In this book I attempt to widen a reader’s horizons. I take them on a tour of Amsterdam and I want them to feel every bump and sway of the ship in the North Sea.

We absorb so much vocabulary and information without even trying when we read. People equipped with a wider store of words are more confident because they feel able to interact more with others and are better equipped for what life throws at them, they’re more resourceful. Those with better literacy skills get better chances, better jobs. It can be no surprise that there is a correlation between a restricted vocabulary and low self-esteem. 

Reading is a magnificent sleep aid. It rests and relaxes a brain, powers it down. 

Reading also sharpens our ability to focus and concentrate, skills we are in danger of losing with this modern technological age which presses us to multi-task. We watch TV whilst texting or checking in to see what other people’s take on things are on Twitter.  When we go to watch a band, we record it on our phones rather than just being there in the moment and enjoying it first-hand. Reading demands our whole attention to make sense of what is going on. Being forced to do one thing only but properly lessens our stress levels.

Reading switches our brain into the mains, gives it power, improves memory function, staves off dementia. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ muscle that needs stimulation.

Reading gives solace and escapism for people with anxiety, the poorly who need to forget for a couple of hours that they are hooked up to a drip. It distracts from stress. 

Reading a good story can do what no film can: allow a tailor made hero and heroine fashioned from our imagination to play out the story in our heads. How many of us watched Fifty Shades of Grey and thought ‘Nope, didn’t imagine Christian like that’? It’s a lovely, gentle pastime. One in three adults do not read for pleasure. What a travesty.  

Reading educates us as we read factual books about the experiences of others, makes us see what is possible, encouraging us to make changes for the better. Reading gives people insight into what healthy relationships should be. I’ve had more than one letter from a woman who didn’t realise she was actually living in an abusive relationship until she read objectively the experience of one of my characters and the penny dropped. And she got out. Reading gives us a wider understanding of the world in general. It reminds us of the impact of people’s actions upon others; prompts us to be mindful of the pleasure we can give, or the harm we can inflict. It reminds us to be sympathetic and empathetic, things which can be overlooked in today’s world.

Reading is free if you use the library – millions of books out there to improve and lengthen your life for the price of – absolutely nothing! Quick Reads books are there in libraries now – or in bookshops or online for a very paltry £1.00 each. They can change reluctant readers into confident ones. They can change lives.

 There are wider implications upon society for reading. Being literate unlocks more chances in the job market. More vacancies are filled. The pressure on the welfare system is relieved. Literacy improves confidence, lessens stress – that impacts on the health service which is groaning under the weight of patients with mental health issues.  The economy benefits, crime levels drop. All from people being able to improve on their reading skills. And in this present climate, reading really can benefit people more than ever.

I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day by Milly Johnson (Simon & Schuster) is out now.

The 2020 Quick Reads, including The Little Dreams of Lara Cliffe by Milly Johnson (Simon & Schuster), are out now.

Find out more about using Quick Reads in the workplace with Ready to Read by unionlearn

Visit our Bookshop List to buy Quick Reads titles from independent retailers

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