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Pick A Book – Any Book

January 23, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, schools, young people

The sceptical teacher asks how I’m going to get her Year Nines to read. I could see the doubt on her face when I arrived at the school. How is he going to get them interested in books? They hate reading. Would do anything rather than pick up a book. It’s most often Year Nine or Year Five that I’m asked to work with in schools. Young Offenders and/or NEETS outside of school.


Ability is without doubt important but with the Year Nines much will reflect attitudes to reading rather than simply ability. The school has given me two groups. The first are considered ‘good’ readers, the other group ‘non readers’. The stares that greet me from the two groups are quite different. The first group is curious at why they’re there – but they’re happy to chat and joke amongst themselves. They enjoy reading, or at least enough to argue which authors are the best. The second group is spread out more in the room; they’re quieter, as if waiting to see what hoops I’m going to ask them to jump through. When I place the bag of books on the table in front of them I can see them sink into themselves, wondering how little they can get away with. How they can let the next 45 minutes wash over them and leave them untouched.


When friends ask what I use to engage people I tell them: speed, visuals, chatter and confidence. Curiosity too. I’m interested in what people have to say about books and reading. Meeting these Year Nines helped me to work through something that had bugged me for a while. Why don’t award- winning popular books attract ‘non-readers’? It’s not that all books are a turn-off to them, but many that are held up as the brightest and best of the UK’s glittering YA fiction often are.


The first group of Year Nines, when faced with a pile of books on the table, immediately started handling them and talking about them. They were familiar with the technology, confident they were in control. The second group eyed the books on the table with the same distrust my octogenarian father gives my laptop – as if it could tip him into ridicule at any moment if he fumbled a key.


I include an exercise on book covers in the session with the non-readers. There is no point in asking them about the content at this point. How can I expect them to talk about something unfamiliar to them? Covers are how the book reaches out to their audience.


What becomes clear is that most, if not all, books are aimed at readers. They nod and wink with their covers to indicate what other books they are like. The covers are full of clues and ‘tells’ – using that acquired knowledge that an experienced reader would have to link to other books. To my non-readers this was just noise – shouting in an unfamiliar language. And the books with the most innovative, odd, creative, or beautiful covers were the worst offenders.


So what did make them choose one book over another? Firstly, they admitted they would go for the thinnest book they could find. They’d stay right away from all those puffed up fantasy/adventure thrillers. I bring out a selection of 5 slim books and lay them in a line across the table. I invite them to choose the one with the best cover. They cluster around. Perk up. Everyone suddenly has an opinion. They each get to vote which cover they think is best – I place the ‘winner’ to one side and lay out another five. They really get into now. I’m laying the books out quickly asking them to respond, encouraging them to argue for their favourites. We do this four times.


The books they choose tend to have a single image on the cover. There is argument but a consensus is pretty easily reached on each cover. We look at one book for which there are two different covers – discuss which one is best and why? We arrive at four ‘winners’. They wait to see what I do next. I read out the first page of each, and we judge which has the best beginning, which one grips and why. There is some surprise that the one with the best cover doesn’t have the best first page. We sit and chat about the other books, what kind of stories we like. At the end of the session, not all students take books away but all the books we’ve talked about or read the first pages of are taken


I learnt something important about those who see themselves as non-readers, and they got to see what books could offer. Everyone’s happy. In the weeks after, I use the exercise in lots of different sessions – always with similar results. Books that are aimed at keen readers will not be immediately attractive to non-readers. Books that show exactly what they offer inside are more likely to find an audience with ‘non readers’. ‘I can see what it is,’ said one of the boys. And that is where we all need to start.


The most powerful book in prison

January 23, 2015 | Posted in: prison, Reading



Martina Cole is certainly the most popular author amongst UK prisoners. In the prison library true crime, urban fiction, and self –help are the most popular genres, but the single most sought after book in prison is a dictionary. Prison librarians despair of ever being able to keep them on the shelves so often are they stolen, or never returned. Knowledge is indeed power. In our spell-checked world, with a thesaurus at our fingertips, it is easy to forget the power of the book of words, their meanings, and their usage. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 wasn’t the first but it became the most prevalent as he imposed order on the ‘unruly mess’ of the English language. His desire to capture, order, and define is beautifully punctured in Blackadder the Third.


The Oxford English Dictionary had taken fifty years to complete by the time it was finally published in 1928. It is still the major reference work updated each year. One of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the original OED was William Chester Minor, a convicted murderer confined to Broadmoor.


In 2015 prison is still a world of pen and paper, and it’s not always easy to get hold of either. Prison issue pens look like they came in Christmas crackers. According to the Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, 47% of prisoners in England & Wales have no qualifications at all, and 21% reported needing help with reading and writing. Prisoners have often told me that they will study a dictionary to increase their vocabulary. Without access to the right words how can you describe your feelings? You need the right words to make sense of an argument and to nail a fact. Words are bandages, shields, daggers and shotgun blasts. Young offenders love the rhyming dictionary for their lyrics. A dictionary is essential for understanding legal documents, and keeping in touch with family. Foreign language dictionaries are even more sought after. In England and Wales 12% of prisoners are foreign nationals. There is one lady who has made it her mission to comb London charity shops for foreign language dictionaries that she then donates to the local prison.


Being given a dictionary often marks a rite of passage. I can remember being given the bible and an Oxford Pocket Dictionary when I left primary school. The bible was the smaller of the two. Over the last two years the charity Give A Book has given over 5000 mini dictionaries to prisoners who have completed The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge (now known as Reading Ahead). It is without doubt the best incentive to take up the challenge to read, and to read more.


Even on the out the dictionary, electronic or paper, is essential. How many of us would confidently expose ourselves with words if we couldn’t trust that we had used them correctly?

The book at the beginning of it all

January 10, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading

Janet and John



I imagine a lot of us can remember the first book that we read and enjoyed but most of us will have forgotten the first book we ever read. It’s more likely to have been part of some generic reading scheme rather than any literary masterpiece. The first time we read something and really ‘get it’ is a fanfare moment.


‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’ Ursula K. Le Guin


In the case of my son it was a games handbook.

‘The Grim Reaper comes to everyone when it is time to die. He does not speak, and the air around him is as cold as ice”.’


Which is a long way from either Roger Red hat or Chip and Biff and the Oxford Reading Tree! That was his entry into the world of reading.


But what, and this is what this post is about, if you only start reading as an adult or teenager? What about Chip and Biff then?


ExSAS soldier and author Andy McNab tells how it was Janet and John Book 10 that opened the world of reading to him. In the army as a young solider he quickly realised that he would have to improve his literacy and Janet and John book 10 was the first one he finished.

‘I had the book for a couple of days to get to grips with it, then stood in front of the captain and read it to him [McNab was 17 at the time and fresh out of Borstal]. When I had finished, he said, ‘Now close it.’

I did as he told me.

‘McNab, remember this moment. The moment you closed the cover of the very first book you had ever read.’


This is what I’m interested in – what books do you give an adult who is struggling to read more than a few sentences? When even a Quick Read such as McNab’s will still be too hard. Do we offer children’s books? Or photocopies of short articles from newspapers? But remember what McNab’s Captain said. He wanted him to remember that feeling of having succeeded. As McNab says, ‘It wasn’t until I sat down that I felt the thrill of having read a book. I had actually read a book!’


Teenagers will have Barrington Stoke’s excellent range of books for reluctant and non-readers but the thousands of adults with poor literacy in this country don’t have a great choice in getting that feeling of actually completing a book. My favourites are The Dark Man series, or Brinsford Books (written and read by offenders). The recent parliamentary report on adult literacy and numeracy quotes an OECD survey that ranks England and Northern Ireland at 22nd out of the 24 countries surveyed.


Dark Man series by Peter Lancett


We spend so much time making reading attractive to children it only seems fair we should spend a similar amount on the adults who fell through the net. Do let me know if you have any suggestions.