Good Reading for All
However, reading is a skill that many of us take for granted. It is assumed that anyone with any intelligence will acquire this skill automatically at school. Not so! The International Literacy Survey carried out over 5 years ago showed that 23% of Scots have very low literacy skills and another 30% have literacy skills that are inadequate to meet the demands placed on us all by the "knowledge society" and the "information age".
Although some people still equate low literacy levels with low intelligence, this is by no means always the case. Low reading skills can occur across the intelligence spectrum. Indeed often a person with low literacy skills expends more intelligence and ingenuity in constructing complicated strategies to avoid other people finding out that they have low literacy skills than that which would be required to support the simple effort of developing their skills.
There can be many and varied reasons why a person does not achieve their potential in literacy at school. Some of these can stem from their home situation when they were a child, where parents had low literacy and were unable, or did not read to their child while they were young, or where parents needed the child to stay off school to act as a carer for them. Sometimes too, frequent moving house because of a parent’s job, with the attendant disruption and the difficulty of settling into a new school can mark the period where a child begins to become left behind in reading and writing.
Schools themselves, for often unavoidable reasons, may not have been the most appropriate learning environment for every child. Peer pressure has much to answer for, and large classes might have meant that individual attention was not always available at the appropriate time for a particular pupil. For some, the teaching methods may not have been suitable. For example, learning by rote from a blackboard will not be easy for the child who learns by doing.
For many people, however, personal issues have often been a major consideration; a sight or hearing problem, for instance which may have gone undetected; brain damage through accident or trauma; emotional issues while a youngster stemming from parents’ problems; or a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia which was not identified.
Whatever the reason for a low literacy level, there are very few adults in Scotland who you could term "illiterate". Most people who currently have low literacy levels will be able to improve and develop their skills. But a history of failure as a child at school does not encourage anyone, as an adult, to tackle learning again and therefore there are often some hidden barriers concerning confidence to be tackled before learning can take place.
However for those who do decide to give learning another try, there is nowadays every opportunity to discover their potential and enjoy a level of literacy that will enable them to have more choices and options in life. The Scottish Executive has provided extra funding to expand the tuition available in each local authority area for adults who would like to improve their literacy and/or numeracy skills.
Often, what is needed most of all is practice but, until recently, worthwhile and interesting books at a language level that would allow people with low or rusty skills to use and develop their reading skills were unavailable and the only source of literature at an appropriate level of skill was material designed for children.
Because of this, some ten years ago, Patricia Scanlan, the Irish author, began an initiative to commission Irish authors to write novels for this specific group, and the Open Door series of books was born. The novels were short and in language that was accessible to all without being childish or patronising. The fact that established writers were used meant that there was quality in these novels and they were by no means "educational books". Since then, these novels from Ireland have become popular throughout the English reading world and have been enjoyed by thousands of people.
However, we at Highland Adult Literacies felt that Scotland too had its share of world renowned authors, and that the time was ripe to encourage some of them to write novels that would be accessible to people with a low literacy level as well as being literature that could be enjoyed by all. We therefore funded a partnership between The Highland Council’s Adult Basic Education Service and Sandstone Press, a Highland based publisher, to produce short novels by Scottish writers that would be suitable also for emergent readers. In summer 2004 the first three books in the Sandstone Vista series were published.
These were The Cherry Sundae Company by Isla Dewar, The Blue Hen by Des Dillon and The White Cliffs by Suhayl Saadi. The authors engaged enthusiastically with the ethos and purpose of the project by ensuring that the language they used was clear and where more obscure or complicated words might be used, the context made it clear what they were. What makes the Sandstone Vista series innovatively different is that the publishers also consulted groups of emergent readers and in partnership with The Highland Council’s Adult Basic Education Service gave the rough proofs of the books to sample groups of readers for comment on style, content and accessibility. One of the most distinguishing features of the Sandstone Vista series is the cream coloured paper on which they are printed and this has been used because of the advice from the sample groups. For most people this is a paper colour which makes the print much clearer. For some people with dyslexia it can mean the difference between being able to read and not making out the words at all.
The first series of three novels was well received by emergent readers and established readers alike. All commented on the engaging content and on the convenience of having good literature by established authors available in slim books that were easy to slip into the pocket or handbag and which were ideal for reading on trains, buses or planes. The attractive covers and the fact that these were well known authors meant that these were "real books" that no-one would be embarrassed to read in public.
Already the books have proved their worth and there are many and varied stories coming back to us of how these books have been the door which has encouraged readers back into reading and given them the confidence to tackle further books. Interestingly enough, many readers who have read the Sandstone Vista books have progressed on to full length novels by the same authors and have enjoyed these too.
A second series of three books funded jointly by Highland Adult Literacies and The Highland Council was launched by Sandstone Press earlier this year. These are These Times, This Place by Muriel Gray, Gato by Margaret Elphinstone, and Blood Red Roses by Lin Anderson, which is a prequel to her best selling novel Driftnet.
These Times, This Place by Muriel Gray is the first book produced in the Sandstone Vista series which isn’t a novel. It is in fact a collection of articles on topical issues originally written for the Herald. Although slightly edited, to ensure accessibility to a wide range of readers, Muriel’s inimitable style and irrepressible character is preserved within its pages.
A third series of Sandstone Vista books is in the offing and these are planned to be launched in the Spring of 2006.
Mary Rhind, Co-ordinator of Adult Literacies
Highland Adult Literacies
Books featured in this article
- The Blue Hen - - Paperback
The closing down of the steelworks meant the end of being in work - but John and his pal don't intend it to be the end. 'Keep hens! That's the answer'.
- Gato - - Paperback
A love story set in the Middle Ages, 'Gato' describes a young child brought up in a mill. But when the people of the mill are disturbed by the arrival of a wandering Spanish friar, the child at the centre of the story tries to understand just what is going on between the miller, his wife, and the friar.
- These Times, This Place - - Paperback
Tackling some of the big issues in Scotland today, Muriel Gray tells us why topics such as public transport, gap-year students, and poor housing really matter - and what needs to be done to fix the problems that exist in each.
- The White Cliffs - - Paperback
Far out to sea Adam and Lily can see a dark shape that moves and shifts. It looks like an island but no-one seems to know what it is. When they reach the island it's not black but white. White cliffs rise above them, beneath the sea itself, lie the ghosts of the past.