8,000 people in Ipswich cannot read food labels or street signs

PUBLISHED: 10:42 31 January 2019

Part of the Read Easy Ipswich team: ( left to right) Siobhan White, Jenny Rivett, John Helleur, Alison Stewart-Wheeler. Picture: LTR

Part of the Read Easy Ipswich team: ( left to right) Siobhan White, Jenny Rivett, John Helleur, Alison Stewart-Wheeler. Picture: LTR


Ipswich charity Let’s Talk Reading is targeting disadvantaged areas of Ipswich after it was estimated that 8,000 adults in the town lack basic reading skills.

Let's Talk Reading team: (from left to right)  Annabel Roberts, Clair Pyper and John Helleur. Picture: LTRLet's Talk Reading team: (from left to right) Annabel Roberts, Clair Pyper and John Helleur. Picture: LTR

The estimate is based on national figures and means that there are thousands of adults who are living their lives embarrassed by something which is most emphatically not their fault. They will struggle to read labels on food and street signs, and lack the skills to fill out forms.

But Let’s Talk Reading (LTR) hope to turn this around and make Ipswich the first town in the country where every pupil leaving primary school and every adult is able to read.

John Helleur, who is a retired senior engineering manager from BT, chairs LTR, set up in 2016 to address the problem. He says everyone has the “Right to Read” and he is passionate on the subject.

The issue came to his attention when he was a secondary school governor in Ipswich, a position he held for nearly 40 years, until 2015. John found the statistics depressing.

Reading to a nursery class. Getty Images/iStockphotoReading to a nursery class. Getty Images/iStockphoto

“The thing that got me was that lots of kids were coming into the secondary school not able to read adequately - about 46% of kids were coming in with a reading age two years behind their actual age. And, of that percentage, about half effectively couldn’t read at all - having a reading age below seven.

Advancing the cause of literacy costs money, however, and while the trustees of LTR give their services free, taking the project into schools and communities comes at a price.

Initially LTR worked with primary and secondary schools in disadvantaged areas. Bringing schools together to bid for resources was both a positive move towards addressing the problem and it attracted funding. When 10 schools teamed up it brought in a Suffolk County Council “Raising the Bar” grant of £50,000, an amount that had to be matched. John says this was achieved thanks to Ipswich Borough Council, council’s area committees and a local charity - which does not wish to be named.

Of the £100,000 raised, £80,000 went into the schools to put in place plans to improve reading and literacy, generally.

Reading together. Picture: Getty ImagesReading together. Picture: Getty Images

“I didn’t think it would be enough (money) to make a difference but it was. Several of the schools (subsequently) changed their approach to literacy and put reading at the heart of what they do and this extra focus is beginning to raise standards.”

It is logical, says John, that if you have a struggling secondary school, you will find struggling primary schools feeding into it and that they serve a struggling, disadvantaged community.

“My view is that the only way to sustainably help struggling communities is to develop their skills, particularly reading.

“We also encourage schools to sign a pledge that they will try to ensure that no pupil leaves the school not able to read adequately, So far, seven primary and three secondary schools have signed it.

The contents of the Let's Talk Reading Book Bag. Picture: John HelleurThe contents of the Let's Talk Reading Book Bag. Picture: John Helleur

But what about the children who don’t learn to read? “Their lives are blighted,” John says and gives the bleak picture.

“I discovered Government statistics from as recently as 2012, showing that one in six adults in England don’t read very well and 7.5% of adults can’t read safety signs and medical information.”

John applied these numbers to Ipswich, calculating that in a population of around 140,000 there would be 20,000 people not able to read very well and, of them, 8,500 would not be able to read at all.

For those people, he says, much of modern life with its dependence on computer skills, would be inaccessible.

“If you go back 20 or 30 years there would have been jobs that didn’t require you to read. Those jobs don’t exist any more.”

John poses the question: “So why is reading never in anyone’s manifesto?”

It seems incredible that it is not being urgently addressed when so much of 21st century life is reliant upon reading skills and there is hard evidence showing many people lack them.

“People won’t admit to not being able to read... how do we get people to come forward − how do we get that culture change?

“The most important development period for a child is 0-4 years and parental influence is vital but if the parent can’t read very well the problem is perpetuated. As a result, LTR has added a focus of working with organisations supporting children in this age group, their parents and the staff in early years’ settings.”

John talks about LTR’s engagement with other organisations and charities in the community and how they can tailor their initiatives to meet the needs of more disadvantaged areas of Ipswich. One such charity is Suffolk Babies, which offers ante and post-natal classes. In partnership with LTR, they are providing their classes in the disadvantaged areas of Ipswich and making them more accessible to parents with low literacy,

“Another project is working with all the nurseries in the target disadvantaged areas, providing free book bags for all two-year-olds and using a team of volunteers to demonstrate how to read with nursery-age children.”

In many cases, adults who cannot read will have specific medical problems that have impeded their ability to read. Dyslexia is one of a range of conditions that has a huge impact on learning to read. As a result, there are also moves afoot to develop medical screening in primary schools and for this LTR has teamed up with experts from Colchester to conduct a trial with teaching staff between March and July, this year, during which, 300 children at six to eight schools will be screened.

“As far as we know, no one else is doing this,” says John.

Getting to children when they’re young can, hopefully, avoid large numbers of people growing up unable to read. But there are currently a lot of adults who, having emerged from their compulsory years of education without being able to read fluently, find themselves excluded from the mainstream of society because they lack that skill. So, last year, LTR set up a partner charity, Read Easy Ipswich to give free one-to-one coaching to adults, particularly parents of young children.

John doesn’t want people to feel embarrassed or stigmatised. He wants them to feel empowered to seek the help they deserve - help they should have had when they were children. It is, he says, their absolute right to read.

“The key is to get adults, especially parents, who struggle with reading to come forward. We have to get an entire culture change in the community – struggling readers have to feel comfortable enough to come forward.”

He points out that people who are not very good at maths don’t seem to worry too much about admitting it so why should there be any sort of shame attached to not being a good reader?

If you have a friend or family member who struggles to read, help them yourself with a “Teach a Friend to Read” manual supplied free by LTR or ask Read Easy Ipswich for free one-to-one coaching.

John says “Make time for reading: particularly parents of young children should read with their children every day”

Let’s Talk Reading’s partner Read Easy Ipswich has 30-40 volunteers for its adult literacy coaching but it needs many more. If you can help, ring Read Easy Ipswich on 07736 579963 write to them here or call LTR on 07763 702267. Or you can apply online.

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