Skills for the Job: Helping young people with literacy


With England near the bottom of international literacy tables, youth workers can do plenty to help young people improve their skills.

How does the UK rate for literacy among young people?

A National Literacy Trust report from 2010 found that one in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. Even more alarming, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) placed England 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.

What are the reasons for poor literacy?

There are many factors behind poor literacy among young people:

  • Children from homes without books may not recognise the importance of learning to read.
  • A child who has not experienced story-telling and rhymes is more likely to begin school less able to communicate verbally and imaginatively.
  • For children who find it extremely difficult to decode the written word, learning to read can become very stressful as the feeling of failure envelops them.
  • The stigma often attached to failure to read in early school years makes it hard for the second-chance learner.

How can it affect young people's prospects?

A 2008 National Literacy Trust report, Literacy Changes Lives, highlighted the relationship between literacy and five areas of a person's life: economic wellbeing, aspirations, family life, health and civic/cultural engagement.

This presented overwhelming evidence that literacy has a significant relationship with a person's happiness and success. Young people with poor literacy skills find themselves unable to fulfil their aspirations for their future.

It essentially prevents them performing any task that requires a knowledge and proficiency of the written word: job applications, emails and letters to mention a few. In a communication-hungry society in which tweets and texts link us to the wider community, we are judged, rightly or wrongly, on how effectively we present our spoken and written language.

What should youth workers do to help young people improve their literacy?

Youth workers are in a prime position to help reluctant readers via an environment away from the classroom.

However, the reading materials need to be fresh, engaging, stimulating and age-appropriate. Stories that are made easier to read need not patronise the intelligence of a struggling reader.

Until recently, there has been a dearth of ageand subject-appropriate material suitable for youth workers to use with the "second chance" reader, but recently new reading programmes have addressed this issue.

Youth charity Endeavour has launched an online literacy programme called Street that features comic strips created by former Marvel Comics editor Tim Quinn and short stories featuring topical storylines.

Another programme, the Dockside reading programme, uses a synthetic phonic approach so that pupils learn a sound and the different ways it can represented in the English language, which helps to build up readers' decoding skills from scratch.

It has proved very successful in engaging teenagers and young adults in soap-opera style books with storylines that are non-condescending and visually appealing.

Many schools, including pupil referral units, alternative provision projects and youth offending institutions, are using Dockside to address reading difficulties among young people, including those leaning English as a second language.

By Philippa Bateman and John Townsend (Authors of Street and Dockside), Rising Stars publishing company

Top tips

  • Communicate. Talk to young people and find out what they perceive the reason for their reading delay/reluctance to be
  • Utilise young people's interest in social media and texting as a starting point to explore their literary skills
  • Use e-books and other online reading opportunities as a gateway to introducing books that demonstrate the relevance of literacy, and that interest, engage and inspire young people
  • Try different learning methods to suit individual learning styles such as visual or multi-sensory
  • Make the learning experience positive and enjoyable. Young people who have problems reading may be intimidated by the fear of further failure

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