Volunteering in a Literacy class at the Friends Centre

Did you know that one person in six in the UK struggles to read and write? Poor skills compromise health, confidence, happiness and employability. These literacy difficulties will limit a person’s opportunities throughout their adult life.

But this is not the whole story. So much pleasure too, can be derived from a rattling good tale whether it is a thriller, romance, historical novel, or sci-fi. As a writer I am dedicated to words, books, reading and writing and loving reading as I do, I feel it is so important for people to be able to enjoy books.  There is such a wealth of knowledge, fun and enjoyment to be gained from literature. Anyway, because of this great passion I have for literacy, I am a volunteer at the Friends Centre and help to teach a class of about 10 people who are at various stages of learning to read and write.

One of the teacher’s most tricky jobs is to keep the students focused as they are all at different stages and if she concentrates on the more, or indeed the less, able the others become bored. So, she must divide them up to undertake different tasks and the volunteers, such as myself, are an extremely necessary and positive asset as they can encourage and supervise the smaller groups,

The students are a very diverse group, a mixture of young, middle-aged, male female, and are of different races, backgrounds and life styles. The teacher interviews and assesses each student’s needs and aspirations and writes an Individual Learning Plan for them, (ILP). As you will imagine each student’s aims are different but there is some common ground, for example, they all want help with either completing or filling in the forms they so often encounter in life.

As a group, most of the class tend to have problems with concentration and for various reasons did not learn to read or write as a child. They all tend to fidget, yawn out loud, or burp or interrupt the teacher with inconsequential requests or their latest news, shouting, “I’ve got to leave at 11.30 ‘cos I’ve got to go shopping” or, “I’m moving to a new address soon”, or “I’m worried about my fiancé, he’s got a heart condition, What do you think I should do?” But to give credit when it is due, they are all very keen and turn up for the lesson each week.

The two ladies I am assigned to help are both very different. One always seems to have some problem or another and before I came to help used to leave the class in tears, missing a lot of the lesson.  She may say something like, “I’m feeling very paranoid today”, so I talk to her and ask why and try to reassure her that no one is out to ‘get’ her. She knows the sound of the different consonants and vowels and so can be prompted to spell words correctly. By giving her positive feedback, she now stays for the whole lesson and she is making excellent progress and enjoys herself.

The other lady is the ex-traveller who never went to school. She must be a strong person as she has had a very tragic and traumatic past.  She is, perhaps the least able of the students but is determined that one day she will be able to read. She is a good pupil and works hard. Last week she not only learnt the days of the week and seasons for the first time but also how to spell them. She has a long way to go but I believe that she has the determination to succeed.

Although I was not surprised at the ways in which the student’s lack of literacy affected them I was surprised by the manner in which they were being helped.   I had somehow imagined that the teacher would be training the students from the beginning like the first year class at infant school.   I thought that the teacher would write letters on the white board and give the sounds associated with the various consonants and vowels.  I did not realise that this would be completely unsuitable.  Indeed some of the more advanced students are undertaking Edexcel certificates and Reading or Writing certificates at Entry 1 or Entry 2. The other students achieve by completing at least 60% of their ILP tasks.

At the end of each lesson the students fill in an evaluation form on their ILP where they write down things that they have learnt and things that they still need to work on. This is important for the Friends Centre, as these ILP’s have to be submitted and scrutinised by The Skills Funding Agency in order to continue to obtain funding for the courses.

I sometimes I wish I could do more.  However, I take my hat off to the Friends Centre who offers these courses free-of-charge, as I know they are providing a fantastic service, which is greatly appreciated by all their students, who feel enabled by their own efforts. They can clearly understand that with better literacy they can succeed in life and make a contribution to society.