Seeing yourself in print
David Mallows and Anne Chester describe how publishing an individual learner's work can motivate all learners
In the 1970s, adults who came forward to seek help with their reading and writing were all too often presented with children's reading books - a patronising and frustrating experience for learner and tutor alike. In response to this, many practitioners began to work collaboratively with their learners to produce texts. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, learner writing became an important and influential element of practice in literacy classes as tutors and learners began to recognise the opportunities to empower learners to develop as writers through writing from experience.
Publishing adults' writing
The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP) was established in 1976 for writers' groups and publishers who wanted to share their skills and work with their communities. The members shared a belief that 'writing and publishing should be made accessible to all'. One outcome was Write First Time, a national broadsheet that featured learner writing, edited by tutors, that was published for ten years. Another original member was the charity Gatehouse Publishing, a dedicated learner writing project set up in 1977 in response to the need for appropriate reading material for adults with reading and writing difficulties. Sadly, these organisations have now closed but their ethos, philosophy and learner-centred approach continue to thrive with a number of exciting projects such as NRDC's 'Voices on the Page', now established as part of Adult Learners' Week, a story competition run by tutors at Orpington College with First Bus employees(1), and a collection of Army poetry that was developed as part of the BBC RaW (Reading and Writing) campaign (see poem, left).
There is also an increasing number of books being published that have been written by people whose stories would not normally be told in print. They make fascinating reading and are especially useful for adults working on their reading and writing; the best people to write for adult learners are those who have been through the same experience. Authentic everyday adult themes and content often inspire readers to recall similar experiences and stories of their own which they may then write or have scribed for them to produce their own initial texts.
As we've seen from the huge response to the 'Voices on the Page' initiative, writing is important to many learners and seeing their words in print can have an extremely positive effect on their confidence.
'I can't believe they chose my story. I never thought I had a chance of winning or that anyone would be interested in reading it.'
These were Thomas Campbell's words on learning that New Leaf peer readers had selected his writing for publication as a New Leaf beginner reader book. New Leaf Books is a dedicated learner writing project which publishes books written by and for adults with reading and writing difficulties(2). Thomas is a man in his 40s who, because of epilepsy, had no schooling until the age of nine. He left school aged 16 unable to read or write and only started literacy classes in 2002. Thomas attended writing workshops run by New Leaf and was encouraged, with the aid of a scribe, to put his words on paper. In a supportive and safe environment, Thomas was able to reflect on his experiences and decided to write about the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his drunken violent father.
The development of his story, My Mother, was slow but the process enabled Thomas to develop his thoughts, which in turn gave him strength and confidence. Since the publication of My Mother, Thomas has read extracts from his writing before large audiences. The public attention he has received has been daunting but liberating and empowering at the same time - empowering for Thomas and for other learner-readers and writers.
The publication of My Mother and other beginner reader books gives learners the opportunity to benefit from the experiences and strengths of the writers - their fellow learners.
David Mallows is Senior Communications Advisor at NRDC and Head of Teacher Training
at Bell Switzerland.
Anne Chester is with New Leaf Books.
(1) Published as First attempts! by Orpington College, sponsored by First Group
(2) See www.newleafbooks.org.uk