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When Karen Hobden left school at 14 years of age, she couldn’t read or write, not even her name or address. This continued for the next 35 years and the impact of being unable to read was immense. ‘I had no self-confidence at all,’ she says. ‘I almost never went out and when I did, I walked down the street with my head down, I wouldn’t talk to people. When I went for a job and was given forms to fill in, I would say that I would fill them out at home and never go back.’

She never read to her children. ‘I used to tell them it was because I didn’t have my glasses with me, although I didn’t wear glasses,’ she says.

Today, however, Karen can read and thanks to Read Easy Gillingham and Shaftesbury, a free adult literacy scheme, she continues to improve. Karen was referred to Read Easy by her local surgery health coach, who was helping Karen cope with caring for her elderly father who suffers from dementia.

‘There is a lot of paperwork and there was no way I could get him the help he needed without learning to read,’ says Karen. ‘I still struggle with some of it, but I can read and understand most of it now.’
Read Easy Gillingham and Shaftesbury was started two years ago and covers the towns and villages with SP7 and SP8 postcodes as well as Mere, Marnhull and Wincanton. It is part of a larger network which was first established in September 2010, in Dorchester and Weymouth, by Ginny Williams-Ellis, who at the time was a literacy tutor at Dorchester Prison. Part of her work there included the setting up and running of a peer mentoring reading plan, which enabled one prisoner to teach another to read. She realised there was nothing similar available in the wider community and set up Read Easy to meet this need.

The National Literacy Trust estimates that 5.1 million adults in England are considered ‘functionally illiterate’, with one in six struggling to read. Here in the Gillingham area, the scheme currently has 13 people on its books, with another three about to start. Readers are matched with trained coaches who are volunteers who give up an hour of their time each week.

‘We see people from 18 years old to 80,’ says Ellie Lloyd from Read Easy Gillingham and Shaftesbury, and who was a speech, language and communications teacher before she retired. ‘The reasons people cannot read are varied, from issues around dyslexia to illness throughout their childhood that meant they missed a lot of lessons or they weren’t at school because they were needed on the farm.’

The aim of Read Easy is to get adults reading to a level that is considered ‘adequate for most daily activities,’ says Ellie. ‘At this level they can read the tabloid press and if they see a word they do not recognise, they are able to segment it [break it into syllables] and then read it.’ The method used is phonics-based, and readers can go at their own pace. ‘There is no pressure whatsoever,’ says Ellie.
The tricky part is getting people who cannot read to come forward. ‘I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t read,’ says Karen. ‘The hardest part was saying that I needed help.’

Karen, 54, traced her reading problems back to her Hampshire primary school. ‘No-one had time for me,’ she says. ‘I was sent to a special class but instead of being taught, the six of us were allowed to do what we wanted. There were games in one corner, a musical instrument in the other…’

She finally learned to read when, 15 years ago, she applied to Yeovil College so she could get into catering. On realising she was illiterate, the college offered her group lessons and she learned basic words, as well as her name. But reading was still a problem. ‘If I was trying to read a sentence and there was a long word or a word I couldn’t read, my mind would go blank and then I wouldn’t be able to read any of it,’ she says. ‘Now if that happens, I read to the end of the sentence to get the gist of it and I also have the confidence to break down the difficult word and try and read it.’

Karen’s coach is 73-year-old Kathy Walker, a retired teacher who taught language and linguistics, and wanted to do something for the community. ‘Teaching adults is different from teaching children: an adult becomes a friend,’ says Kathy, who is full of praise for Karen. ‘Karen is an intelligent lady who has been let down by the system throughout her life,’ she says.

Karen has been with Read Easy since June 2016 and being able to read has transformed her life. ‘It’s helped my confidence big time,’ she says. ‘I never used to go out, now I help at a dementia group. I can text my friends. Being able to read means I can now do things that I would never have been able to do before.’

Who can become a coach? No special qualifications are required to become a volunteer coach, but you need to be a fluent reader, relate well to others and have the skills and patience to support and encourage an adult who wants to learn to read.
How much time is needed: one day for an all-day training session. Then, with your reader, twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.
How do I apply? You need to complete an application form, attend an interview and supply two referees. You will also need undergo an Enhanced DBS (CRB) background check.

Read Easy matches readers with coaches for one-to-one learning. A special book is provided as well as a quiet, comfortable place to learn. Any adult is welcome, of any age. ‘It is never too late to learn,’ says Ellie Lloyd.

To become a coach or learn to read, contact Jenny on 07748 977330 or email jenny@readeasy.org.uk

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