Keely Duncan-Fewster and Andy Desa run Desapline Martial Arts in the beautiful seaside town of Scarborough, in North Yorkshire. They also volunteer as Literacy Champions as part of the Our Stories Hub on the North Yorkshire Coast, working to help promote the importance of reading, writing and talking. We interviewed Keely and Andy to find out more about how they’re using literacy to help improve the life chances of the young people they work with…
Tell me how you first heard of Our Stories?
We met Liz Dyer, who manages the Our Stories Campaign, through the University of Hull where we happen to have a Sports Community Partnership. This partnership enables us to give our 200+ students and their families educational benefits when they get involved with Desapline Martial Arts. This enables us to raise the aspirations of those in our community.
What made you get involved?
We got involved when we discovered that 180,000 five-year-olds start school without the communication, language, and literacy skills expected for their age. It’s really shocking that so many young people start off in life on a back foot through no fault of their own. We feel that if we can help just one child (or adult!) to improve their literacy skills then we have made a difference.
We thought that by combining martial arts and reading, we could encourage more children to get involved, and in doing so we could help reduce the number of children who don’t have confident literacy skills.
The idea of combining sports with literacy is such a good idea, and is something we've actually done ourselves! Can you tell us a bit more about how you've managed to integrate literacy into your martial arts classes?
We have created a cosy little book corner within the club. Children can borrow a book whilst they are waiting for their session, or are watching their family member train. You’ll also often find the older ones reading to the younger children, which is such a brilliant sight.
Children are also able to take the books home after their session. We use the space as a book swap so that children have access to an array of titles without being deterred by cost. It also means that the children can share their favourite books with each other, and you can always find them chatting about what they've been reading.
They love the bookshelves so much that many of the children have almost read our entire stock (any book donations this way please!). Not only do the kids come to the club to learn martial arts, they come along to read too.
Amazing! It’s so good to hear all the children are so interested in reading. Do you have any exciting plans going forwards?
We have actually recently moved to a new dojo and have been able to improve the book corner with bean bags and bookshelves.
Through our voluntary work with the National Literacy Trust, we’ve learnt how important story-time can be to a child. Not only does it improve their grades at school, it can make them happier children too. We've noticed that concentration has improved, and their behaviour and attendance at school has got better too! It's been great to see such positive attitudes towards learning.
Because of this, we’re going to start making story time a regular part of our kick-boxing class with a smaller sized children's group. That way, we’re keeping the kids active AND improving their literacy, so it’s a win win!
Reading can have such a positive impact on mental wellbeing, and it sounds like you're both seeing the results of that which is brilliant. Are there any other reasons why you think improving literacy is important?
Improving literacy is important especially for the children who come along to our club. The better a child can read, the better their prospects are for the future. We want to show the kids that reading is fun, whilst giving them key skills that they need for school and their futures.
Ok, now for a bit more about you two... what is your favourite children’s book?
I (Keely) love The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson - my kids used to bring it home from nursery and we spent hours reading it over and over again.
My (Andy) favourite is Jacob O’Riley Wants a Pet by Lynn Rickards and Lee Wildish, because I used to read it to my son when he was little. In fact, I still like to read it to him now!
Have you ever experienced any challenges with literacy in the past?
Yes, I (Andy) struggled with reading throughout my childhood and into my adult life. I actually only learnt how to read properly when I had my son, Finn, so that I could read bedtime stories. I still struggle with punctuation and grammar when writing, but I have the support of Keely (and many others!) who can help with any written work.
Eight years ago, I would have never envisaged myself reading out loud in front of a group of people. Today, I am a course presenter for surfing instructors and regularly have read in front of my students. This is an amazing achievement for me!
Thank you both of you for such a lovely interview - it sounds like you're doing some great work and we can't wait to find out how things go in your new venue.