Lleucu Siencyn says a love of literature should be key to developing literacy skills.
At Literature Wales we believe that literature comes before literacy.
This may not seem the obvious order of things, but what we mean is that falling in love with a story is the key to developing a love of and the skills for reading. A baby stuffing books into her mouth, or a toddler fascinated with the close-up of a beautifully drawn owl, or a whole classroom in fits of laughter at their teacher’s hilarious reading aloud of some naughty nursery rhymes – these are all examples of children developing a love of literature, before the need to be literate.
We have undergone many changes as an organisation during the last few years, as we transitioned from Academi into the new national company Literature Wales. The most obvious changes have been in the way we present literature to a wider audience and the development of a more inclusive attitude to our programming. We didn’t want to preach to the converted.
Literature belongs to everybody and can be found everywhere. We need to break boundaries and transform the way people perceive and experience literature. Small babies hold and feel books before they can read; teenagers write thousands of words online about how to play computer games. Spoken word artists win major music prizes. And most agree that there is poetry in the work of Dylan – Bob Dylan, that is. Is graffiti street art or poetry? In order to develop an inclusive agenda we need wide partnerships, and a broad definition of what constitutes literature.
True engagement in literature can change lives. A new approach to ensure everyone can access literature is needed. Many of us are increasingly concerned about the declining literacy levels in Wales, and are trying to work together to address this: from Welsh Government, individual teachers, employers, to those working in specialist youth care.
Reading for pleasure is vital to develop literacy. But pleasure is not always the same as having fun in a party-time way. We pick up books because we are curious, and because we care. We learn to empathise with characters, and it helps us to recognise the potential fears and anxiety within us. We feel more connected with others, we learn about feelings, and our sense of humanity is nurtured. And remember – a love of stories has to be established before we turn to phonics, words and spelling.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that reading is a creative act. I was in a conference a few years ago where the unfortunate speaker defined some arts participation as “active” (dance, drama etc) and some as “passive” (e.g. reading). My hand shot up. Reading is arguably the most active and creative of all arts participation. You create new worlds and universes of characters and locations, as alive as if you were sitting in the middle of it all, just by looking at a jumble of black shapes on white paper. It’s the most creative and magical process our minds do, and I never cease to wonder at it.
Many of the new initiatives set up by Literature Wales during the last few years are about putting the creative power of literature in the hands of those who need it most. We are very pleased to support the Read On Get On campaign, which aims for all children in Wales to be reading well at age 11 by 2025. The Read on Get on campaign has a particular focus on children living in poverty, because we know those children are at the greatest risk of falling behind and not catching up.
Literature is a great tool for working with these communities – everybody can have a go, and it’s very low in resource. Witnessing first-hand how a series of creative writing and reading workshops can develop a young person’s confidence is a very powerful experience – and it’s very humbling to have been able to be part of this process.
We are lucky in Wales to have so many talented and inspiring writers in both languages who are ready and willing to work with children and young people. Every year we support author visits to audiences of thousands in schools and clubs, and our Young People’s Writing Squad project mentors and nurtures the next generation of writers who in turn will inspire the generation below. However, we also recognise that more needs to be done, and to make sure that no child is left behind. By joining together under the coalition of Read On Get On – working closely with colleagues in Save the Children, National Literacy Trust, Book Trust, the Libraries Services and others – we can achieve much more. Every baby born in Wales should be allowed to fall in love with stories, and begin a lifetime of enjoying the magic of words and their own imagination.