The Oxford English Dictionary took the decision to not identify a ‘word of the year’ for 2020 because it was, “a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word.” No disagreement from me on that, but perhaps it can be encompassed by one word, and that is stories. There are always millions of stories, written and printed, imagined and spoken and just the lived stories of everyday life. Thanks to our work across the country the National Literacy Trust has been able to share in some of these stories, some sad, many inspiring but all reflecting unique people and places.
Social workers said that free books were a way to be welcomed into the homes of families they work with. Teachers, dropping off free-school-meals and printed sets of work to children without internet access, let us know that what they really needed was pens and pencils – and our partners helped us to do that. Volunteers, our Literacy Champions, have been making videos of themselves and their children reading books and making up stories to inspire other families during lockdown. These amazing people use storytelling methods they know their community will respond to, like storytime in Urdu in Nottingham.
2021 is now giving us an opportunity to go further than ever before with a new programme called Connecting Stories. Like us, Arts Council England were inspired by what was happening in diverse communities around the country and the important part that literature and stories is playing in how people think and talk about identity and respond to difficult circumstances.
From January until August we’ll be working in the 14 towns and cities around the country which are our Literacy Hubs. Publishers large and small are working with us, and linking their authors and illustrators to our Hubs so they can help champion this project. With their help, and our partners on the ground, we will engage at least 70,000 children and young people through competitions, author visits, reading for pleasure events and activities and a campaign to champion the importance of literacy for someone’s mental wellbeing and sense of identity.
Connecting Stories is a major undertaking across the country, but it is also one which will be intensely local. There will be at least 14 different creative writing competitions launch in the New Year, each one shaped by the authors linked to a Hub, our on-the-ground team and the people we work with. The authors will join classrooms virtually and will be talking about their connections to the area and the aspirations that young people have. We have a proven track record of working locally and we know and understand the importance of tapping into what is special about each unique place. This method means we are able to make a lasting difference to literacy levels and give communities the opportunities that come from having literacy skills.
Over the last nine months the value of literacy in all its forms, reading, writing and communicating, has been highlighted like never before. Thanks to donations, our charity has got more than 400,000 books and magazines to people through food banks, social workers, school and our volunteer Literacy Champions. Hundreds of thousands have accessed our online support and resources via our Words for Life page and young people have submitted amazing stories, poems and limericks through our local Facebook pages.
Despite all this great work we know it isn’t enough. There are too many people without digital access, families who don’t see the positive link between reading and fun children. For children from the poorest communities, this challenge has been exacerbated by the fact that 1 in 11 (9.3%) do not have a single book of their own at home. Support from Arts Council England, the publishing industry and our partners means that we can continue to respond to these challenges, do more and keep our response place-based and relevant to each area.
The new year is going to be a busy one for us. In just nine months, across 14 locations we will have more than 50 authors and illustrators helping us to engage with over 70,000 young people. Tens of millions of words, both written and spoken, will create new stories and millions more words will be read. Look out for an update in 2021 when we will start Connecting Stories.
By Jason Vit, Head of Local Areas at the National Literacy Trust