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Engaging Learners Through Writing For Fun

October 19th, 2018

Most confident writers (I’m guessing the majority of people reading this) take these skills for granted. So it might surprise you that approximately one in five adults in the UK have less than functional literacy and struggle with tasks such as filling in forms, reading instructions or supplying correct information at the Doctors’.

Social Media often sees negative comments regarding spelling or misuse of English, with the implication that such mistakes suggest the writer is stupid and their opinions, therefore, of less value.  Poor spellers seem to be fair game. But in fact, the problem is seldom generated by stupidity but usually by interrupted schooling: elderly people removed from school to work or care for younger siblings, middle aged folk who were never identified as Dyslexic or had periods of absence due to illness, to teenagers who have dodged school or moved home frequently.  Of course, statistically speaking, there are strong links between other socio-economic factors and low literacy skills but affected people are not a ‘type’.  Sadly, more young people than ever are now leaving school with inadequate literacy skills.

As reading and writing permeates every aspect of life, people affected by low literacy feel marginalised and judged; they are the non-swimmers at the pool party, the meat eaters at the vegetarian feast! They experience low self-esteem, lack of confidence and often go to great lengths to conceal the problem. They agonise over things that a confident writer wouldn’t give a second thought – I’ll bet you don’t know any doctors who care if their handwriting is illegible!  Anyone who doubts the impact on individuals need only watch some of the TV adverts from the National Literacy Campaigns in the early ‘noughties’, notably a very powerful and disturbing ‘Big Plus’ advert showing a distraught mother cradling a screaming, poorly toddler, whilst staring panic stricken at the child’s medicine as she struggles to read the dosages.

The UK’s literacy (and numeracy) problem is also an economic issue – it costs the country money, yet earlier funding to address this has largely evaporated and today, departments involved tend to be ‘Cinderella Services’, underfunded and undervalued. Much of the funding, understandably, is directed at employability, with emphasis on certificated learning to contribute to industrial selection. Unfortunately, the thought of ‘exams’ can further distance people from education when often their goal is to address an immediate issue in their life e.g. being unable to write a letter to their child’s teacher, fill in a passport application form, or manage household bills, rather than to seek a qualification.

I was lucky enough to win the recent Limerick Competition, so it seems fitting to give Limericks a mention. I have used them and other, perhaps deceptively simple, writing tasks to engage my adult learners in the writing process. There are many teaching opportunities in Limericks: phonics, spelling, use of adjectives, writing concisely etc.  yet they are fairly non-threatening and great for group work. I firmly believe that to become a really confident writer, you have to learn to love it and that is unlikely to happen through filling in a form or sitting an exam. Engaging learners in writing for fun and pleasure greatly reduces the fear of functional writing. Many of my learners did indeed learn to love writing and a couple even went on to be published.

So those of us who were instilled with that love (and corresponding skills) in childhood are privileged and should feel truly blessed… while sparing a thought now and then for the late starters who don’t yet feel the love.


Aileen says: Having worked with Community Learning and Development all my adult life I took early retirement in 2015, after spending the previous 13 years as a Literacies Development Worker. During that time I came to understand the impact of low literacies on people’s lives and found tremendous satisfaction in supporting such people to develop a love of the written word and work towards their potential.

At the same time, I was able to pursue my own interest in writing and in 2013 had my first poetry collection published. I have also had many pieces of poetry and flash fiction published in a range of anthologies and enjoy taking part in competitions and performance poetry. Reading and writing have always been, and remain, a big part of my life.

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