Friday, 7 August 2009

Issue 1 - Millions of People Don't Read - because They Can't Read

1/ Millions of people don't read, because they can't read. More money needs to go into schemes to give word skills and confidence
  • Do you have any experience of this?
  • Do you know of good research about this?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • How can the Word Nerd Army help on a local/National/International scale?
  • How can we use the internet to help?
  • What do we know that could help governments to deal with this issue?

Please leave comments. I plan to take action on this. What advice do you have? What can we do as a group of people?


  1. So what do we do about it? How do you teach people to read, if you can't even identify who they are?

  2. Paul - I'm so buzzing with ideas about this one. Thanks for the comment. :)

    We can put pressure on governments to invest in projects to help. We can raise the profile of the problem by blogging about it.

    People who don't read still watch television and listen to radio. We could encourage investment to go into campaigns through these media. We could get musicians on board. We could get the current champions of oral tradition - rappers - on board. True use of lyric in the traditional sense. Convincing rappers to talk about books rather than guns might be tricky but it's not impossible.

    We could help to build more inclusiveness in the idea of literature - get children and adults really excited about words whatever stage they are at.

    I totally disagree that not being able to read at/by a particular age spells the end of your literary journey. I couldn't read when I was 11. Did I give up? No. Was it harder for me because I had an injured brain? Of course. The point was that I LOVED words so I'd do anything to learn them. I now have an upper second in English from a good University and two novels under my belt. If someone loves words, they'll jump through the hoops however long it takes.

    Maybe we need to ask different questions.

    Instead of asking 'how can we help them if they can't read?' we could ask:

    - 'how can we make non-readers fall in love with words?'

    - 'how can we make non-readers fall in love with stories?'

    I'd be willing to bet they already love stories, so it's just a question of finding out how they access their stories.

    For instance... someone might not be able to read but they might watch lots of soaps on TV. The government could target literacy ads to the soap ad breaks.

    Maybe some of these people would LOVE to write stories for the characters they watch. Maybe the ads could be based around that.

    Target day time soaps and you'll pick up people who are also unemployed. If part of what is holding them back is language skills the government could save money. Literacy programmes must cost less than benefits programmes.

    Couldn't governments enable people from where they are now?

    In the UK for instance, we have the BBC - it's state television. It's too funky for us to remember this sometimes but there it is. There's nothing to stop the government speaking to the writers of BBC soaps like EastEnders to write a character that struggles with literacy but battles through and triumphs with the help of a literacy program. They could shove a 'if you've been affected by this issue' helpline afterwards. Jobs a good 'un!

    Haven't watched Enders for years - maybe they've already done this. If they haven't then they should.

    What does everyone else think?

  3. That's actually a really good idea! Different forms of media rather that just words to encourage reading - nice one Rebecca!

    Channel 4 are particularly popular for shows like that. They had a show on the homeless a few weeks back and I have to say, I was inspired by it. It's such a brilliant show idea.

    I run, albeit with little success so far, a YouTube channel - maybe we could get a few of the big YouTubers on our side for this. Charlie McDonnell (charlieissocoollike) is pretty cool for doing stuff like that (and I've spoken to him before too!). Also, I converse with a few of the others every now and then. I know three from Ireland (two of them not personally, but I talk to them sometimes, one more than the other, and the third is my cousin) and two from America (one from Texas, the other California), and some Aussies too. And I'm sure the rest will help raise the profile. If you have a camera you can do it too. A WordNerd community channel!

    If we get a celeb on board with this too, it will help raise the profile of the movement. I'll get everyone in the Den in on it too. This is essentially our campaign with a different name on it, except we're also hoping to get more people writing at a younger age and to get reading and writing seen as cool again.

    I'll do some research into books that can help people teach reading skills. There has to be one. And I can get a discount on it in work if it can be ordered, which will give us some knowledge on how to help actively in the community. I also attended a senior infants class for a week of work experience last year and saw the different sounds they were taught to learn to read, so I kind of have an idea of how it works already.

  4. Sounds great. The only thing I'd say to that is that I picked TV and radio as you need no written word skills. Not so with the internet. I worry a lot of the people we're talking about are excluded from internet use because of not understanding written language.

    The thing about making reading and writing be seen as cool again (with people of all ages)is one of our goals too. If you're doing an online piece with another organisation about this, any chance you could throw in a mention for this blog if it's appropriate and I'll link to wherever it's posted. Did you notice the Blog Roll by the way?


  5. The Internet is merely a tool for promoting the cause. The more people that know about it, the sooner the message gets out. Then more will be done to get literacy programmes up and running. At that point, TV and Radio are likely to become more willing to spread the message.

    And I was going to surprise you, but I've just given the Word Nerd Army a mention on my latest vlog, which is uploading as I type. It's alongside Doctor Who, which means it will get some traffic coming its way! I've also asked for people to write fan-fiction for Doctor Who; it's a kind of test to see what people can write based ona show they watch.

    And yes, I noticed the Blog Roll. Thanking you dearly!

  6. I love the Doctor Who thing - here's a link for anyone lurking but not commenting -

    I'm with you on that. Actually, I was kind of making that publicity to readers point with the blogging idea at the top but then my brain elves got a bit focused on the actual people we want to help. You're absolutely right. All publicity we can get out to word lovers is great.

    In the spirit of word 'love' I've borrowed a concept. I'm sure I'll be forgiven:

    All we are saying is "give words a chance."

    "Give books a chance" sounds better but it's too limiting. So many more ways to share words. That's why I like the 'word nerd' idea. For a start, it incorporates lovers of words regardless of what the format is that they love.

    The other thing is being called a nerd is rarely a positive thing so if we get behind a title that may not be seen as 'cool' and make it cool, we're winning.

    That was why I got so much grief for Ms Twitter. 'The pen is mightier than the pin-up' is a really controversial concept in a competition that tends to celebrate... well... pin-ups. We all got behind it though and won. Now I'm getting messages from people who weren't even backing me saying it was a really cool idea.

    Impossible victory? Nope. Some of these points seem impossible but if we could do that impossible thing, why can't we do these impossible things? We can't fix them by ourselves but we can certainly stir things up a bit.

    I formed a pressure group when I was a teenager - it was really small - to change an element of traffic policy. I held off building a giant following for it until the government rejected our proposals. We sent them in. They were accepted. The law changed. It was the easiest thing in the world.

    There may be items on this list that just require a couple of letters to the right people. How can we know that they're impossible? They might not be.

    Thanks for what you've done. I'll put up a post about your new status when this discussion's over :)

  7. Right so... I appear to have run out of discussion. When more people start talking on this, I'll get in touch with a few of the YouTubers I know of.

    Are you planning on making a video for it? Or submitting a clip even? =]

  8. never done that before. Um... maybe that's not my area of y'know... scared.

  9. General point first. The BBC is running its My Story competition/archive again this autumn. That would be the perfect place for you to outline your journey, and your ideas. It's certainly something I'll be entering.

    More specific. There are lots of great schemes in existence it would be good to hook up with. The one that insires me most on twitter is Mighty Writers, an American scheme that uses unused shop windows as a way of getting people involved with words. You probably don't want anything to do with a couple of my other ideas as they cross the line to Banksy territory.

    Another amazing scheme is ABC tales, run in conjunction with The Big Issue by Social Spider. It's a repository of stories by homeless people. I have a feeling that getting people involved in stories is a greatway in, and I love community-based projects as away of involving people in making tehir own presence more visible, and increasing their self-worth through storytelling. It's a great way in to the value of reading.

    The other thing to look up is the documntary that was on last year I think about the guy who taught a group of adults to read uses all kinds of techniques - he'd be a great contact for you.

    The angle I'm personally interested in most in this regard and working on through Free-e-day is the cultural preservation one, which isn't quite the same - the importance of using the written word to preserve dying languages, and the unique idioms of dying stories. The Internet is a wonderful paradox (I've given a couple of papers on this - it intrigues me) in that it is both a universaliser and so a homogeniser, and a preserver of the specific. Literacy programmes are a great way of ensuring the former never swamps the latter.

    More to follow

  10. Just reading through.

    1. Rebecca, you should YouTube. I've only done a couple and not publicised them cos my tech's shonky (the channel is agnieszkasshoes - or you can watch a clip on teh Aggie's shoes Facebook group). On the other hand I'm a media moth - the only thing I love more than a microphone is a camera - hence spending too mcuh time appearing on dubious gameshows, and submitting abstracts for any conference going. It's wonderful, you should give it a whirl. Why not start with radio - I used to do panels for Oxygen fm when I was a student - it's gone, but there are always shows looking for panellists. Which publicity minded stuff brings me to:

    2. It was national Poetry slam in America this week. If ever there's an AMAZING way to get people into words, and from there to literacy, it's slam poetry. Just look at Goldie, who was on telly tonight, and the way he's moved to classical music from D&B.

    3. In terms of the net and reading. You're right - but as disability rep at work, I do a lot of work on access, and there are huge amounts of materials/organisationswho can help. The ones to try first are the ones who deal with making computers accessible for the visually impaired like RNIB and groups like the Macular Degeneration Society.

    4. Back to 2 - have you thought how useful something like karaoke is for getting used to words people already know, and involving music to embed the process?

    Ramblings. i'm sure there will be more. Today or tomorrow I'll be blogging on visibility through culture, which may be of interest - following on from my rant about cultural pillage as internet coverage outstrips access to financial services last week.

  11. Wowsers. You guys are amazing. That is a lot of really valuable info. I want to collect all the ideas here and then come up with some kind of plan as to how to use it. Might be able to put together action sheets that will give other Word Nerds a starting point for their own efforts.

    Working this all out as I go. My current take on it is:

    -We all brainstorm like we're doing now and get all the info up here on the blog

    -If research needs doing, whoever feels most equipped in a given area does the research

    -When we're out of ideas, I'll pull everything together into a plan and put it up on the blog

    -Everyone can comment on what, if anything, needs changing

    -When we're all agreed, anyone who wants to take action on it, follows whatever we've agreed (writes a letter, sends some emails, blogs or whatever) and I'll use the Ms Twitter thing to speak to whomever needs speaking so we can raise a bit of profile for the issue.

    Is this a really, really good idea or are we just nuts?

  12. I think it's a bit of both: it's a good idea, and we're a bit nuts. Mainly because it's a big challenge. But hey, we're writers! We live for challenge. If ever any writer gets published, they suddenly have to start answering to questions like, "So when do you think you'll get a real job again?" A REAL job! < /rant>

    But I like your method of working there. It makes it so one person doesn't have to do too much.

    And thanks for the info Dan! Very helpful indeed!

  13. glad you like the method because, to be honest, I can't do it all myself. I've seriously overdone things over the last month and I have M.E./C.F.S so it's biting me on the butt now!

    I think this'll work best if we all do what we're best equipped to do. I've the got the Ms Twitter UK title so it makes sense for me to use that. I'm also good pulling together lots of ideas and turning them into a document/plan so it makes sense for me to do that too but there's no way I can do all the research or take all the action.

  14. Sounds good. You'll need to be very frim about how and in what context people use the WNA "brand". When Year Zero Writers was getting going we set up a manifesto and Articles of Association, the deal being that members of the collective 1. promoted the manifesto and 2. had to sign up to the A of A before they were allowed to do anything on our behalf. It sounds strict, but there are lots of pitfalls, and it's good for groups to know what the groundrules are.

    I shall do whatever I can, and will focus especially on the areas that overlap with Free-e-day and my campaigning on behalf of Indie/alternative/marginalised culture. I'll always run things by you if I think there's anything sensitive so you can have veto on the mention of WNA - I don't really want to change the content of what I say on behalf of my other stuff as I owe primary allegiance to those causes.

    I can offer WNA a great big platform on the day itself - December 1st. There will be a lot of events/debates etc. going on, and I'l make sure you get one of the most prominent platforms.

    A practical thing - when the Zeroes did our brainstorming, we used a "secret group" on Facebook - the advantage of that is people are free to say anything without fear of saying the wrong thing in full public view. We gave ourselves a week to do it in, with a set-aside brainstorming day at the end, and ended up with 120 posts, from which we culled a 10 page marketing plan.

  15. I've just blogged on publishing and social exclusion over at Aggie:

    Would you be happy for me to link back here, or is it too controversial?

  16. General Message

    I was a little worried that the word 'army' might create the wrong impression. The concept behind this blog is very limited and it's outlined in the first post and the bit at the bottom. It is to fulfil my election'promises' as Ms Twitter UK.

    Really, the extent of that is to raise the profile of a number of issues by getting people to talk about them and then, where relevant, I can send emails to relevant people in government to suggest developments or changes that could be made.

    There's no way I have the personal resources to do more than that, so turning it into an actual 'army'/charity etc isn't going to happen. If others choose to take ideas expressed on here and take them further, that's up to them but 'brand' wise 'The Word Nerd Army' is a loose affiliation of people who backed me to win Ms Twitter UK for the reasons outlined in the first post.

    It is not conceived of as a long term organisation. I'm only Ms Twitter UK for a month and this is the place where I'm putting up the things that mattered to me - and those following me - during the contest. It's a vehicle for me to do what I set out to do with Ms Twitter UK - raise some discussion points and raise the profile of some issues.

    To deal seriously with any one of these issues would take one person a life time. I would hate to irritate the people behind organisations that really do tackle these subjects by taking the 'Word Nerd Army' - a tongue-in-cheek collective noun I made up for my Ms Twitter followers - too seriously. It is a catalyst for discussion and action but is unlikely to be able to be much more than that.

    I have a chronic physical illness and am living below the povery line. My resources are not sufficient for me to be able to send out manuscripts or even feed myself and my husband properly. It is great good fortune that we both had weight to lose as starvation has so far shaved 45 pounds off our collective weight, so I absolutely cannot over-commit to this or my chances of ever being able to get out of poverty will be severely diminished. I have to keep focused on my writing. Whenever I have strayed momentarily from this 'mission' into talking about my own work I have been attacked for being narcissistic - I'm not narcissistic: I'm malnourished.

    Writing is all I can do to bring in pennies. It's a very competitive market and I only have so much energy.

    That said, it's important to me to try to do something to help others, regardless of my personal difficulties, and I gave my word that I would use publicity arising from Ms Twitter UK to promote the 11 points here so... that's what I'm doing.

    If my doing this inspires others to do small things to help with these issues, whether in conjunction with this blog or not, that's a good thing. The only resource I have is a large number of followers online. If half of those did something, however small, about each of these issues then I'm sure it would make a difference.

    I'm happy for people to link to this blog with their own posts as long as they are related to one or more of the 11 points in the first post.

    I'm sure there will be lots of different responses to these issues - some more passionate than others - and it goes without saying that the ideas and opinions expressed in posts that link to this blog may not be shared by me personally but if they help to raise the profile of the discussion and are not deemed to be disruptive to the discussion or offensive then I have no problems with them being mentioned and linked to in comments as long as a reciprocal link is provided.

    I am very ill at the moment so probably won't be on here for a while. Feel free to chat amongst yourselves but keep it clean as I'm trusting that I don't need to approve all comments. I'll only moderate where necessary.



  17. a little addition to that last post... over the last few days I've received many emails and DMs from numerous people with many things they would like me to continue doing. I'm too ill to go through it all at the moment but, hopefully, I'll be able to deal with most of the correspondence tomorrow. Please accept my apologies for any delays. Lots of interesting stuff but I need a day or so. Thanks. :)

  18. and finally... I'm putting up all the 'issues' as posts so people can chime in on any that interest them rather than deal with one at a time or squash it all into the comments for the first post.

    It would be great if people looked through the issues and picked one to blog about then linked back here, so others could do the same. That would be a really easy way to start a discussion across the blogosphere.

    If non-bloggers find this blog and want to help, just retweet one of the issues with the url or something like:

    Is the pen mightier than the pin-up?

  19. I wouldn't worry about the word "army". Maybe it's just me, but it makes me think of the "barmy army" (who are no doubt licking their wounds after the headingley debacle), which is a rather endearing association

  20. Agnieszkas Shoes,

    Bring on the link! Already linking to you from here anyway - you're on the blog roll :)

  21. There are charity groups (I have one on the New Author) that delivers books to people all over the world and help them learn to read. Governments will only go as far as they need to to get reelected. We need to support these charity groups, bring awareness about them to the general public, connect these groups with libraries and authors. We may not be able to identify everyone who can't read but everyone can improve their reading skills.


Thanks for commenting. Can't wait to read your thoughts. Know someone who'd make a good Knight of the Month? Leave their details and a reason with your comment.

How The Word Nerd Army Was Born

A group of tweeple agreed with the idea that:
The Pen is Mightier Than the Pin-up