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Expert opinion: Dawn of the Unread and the battle to engage with teenagers

James Walker is recruiting writers, artists, academics and students – backed by Nottingham Trent University – for his hi-tech fight against illiteracy

Pile of books
What will it take to get the YouTube generation reading?

James Walker is recruiting writers, artists, academics and students – backed by Nottingham Trent University – for his hi-tech fight against illiteracy

I despise illiteracy. I would go as far as to classify it as a form of child abuse given how profoundly it can shape an entire life. England has never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem.

According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations.

The long-term economic implications of these findings were supported by the Confederation of British Industry which found that – brace yourselves – one-in-six pupils struggles to read when they leave primary school; one-in-ten boys aged 11 has a reading age no better than a seven-year-old; and at 14, six-in-10 white boys from the poorest backgrounds are still unable to read properly.

The National Literacy Trust suggests the reason for this depressing trend is that books are deemed a thing of the past by the so-called YouTube generation.

Consequently, the number of children reading outside school has dropped by 25% since 2005.

Finding engaging reading material is a particular problem for boys. The survey found that 35% of boys agreed with the statement: "I cannot find things to read that interest me." This compared with 26% of girls. This is appalling as there is a strong link between literacy and social outcomes, such as home ownership, voting, or a sense of trust in society.

Plonking a copy of the Bard down on the table will not solve the problem.

Instead you have to lure readers in by making reading exciting. This is not dumbing down, it is being realistic about your target audience – 14-plus reluctant readers.

I'm proposing to do this in a new interactive graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread that is being made available across media platforms.

Each month we will release a chapter that will explore a literary figure from Nottingham's past and will be written and drawn by different artists and writers, including Nottingham Trent University alumni – the authors Nicola Monaghan and Aly Stoneman – and guest lecturer and screenwriter Michael Eaton MBE.

I chose the graphic novel medium because it is something reluctant readers will be more comfortable with. The embedded content means that they can go 'deeper' into the text for additional information.

If we are able to intrigue them with snippets into the lives of eccentric lords (the 5th Duke of Portland), boxers (Bendigo), drinkers (Arthur Seaton) and thieves (Charlie Peace) they may then go on to read more.

The important thing is this will be their decision.

Users can either read or play Dawn of the Unread. To play they must complete four tasks at the end of each chapter which address various facets of learning and help create active readers.

These are:

  • GO – visit a literary location in Nottingham
  • Create – write, draw or photograph something inspired by the chapter. This can then be viewed on screens outside Broadway Cinema in Hockley or the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green. This is to raise aspiration and confidence
  • Read – Get a relevant book out from the library
  • Bwainz – Based on the book / chapter.

We are able to track engagement via open access logins, GPS and QR codes on books at the library. Scores are recorded on a virtual library card. The teenager that scores the highest will feature as a character in our final chapter.

My aim is to get every school and college in Nottinghamshire involved and I am working closely with Francoise Bonner, partnership manager at Nottingham Trent University's Schools Colleges and Community Outreach department, looking at the possibilities of sending trainee teachers out to schools to trial Dawn of the Unread or possibly to help create lesson plans.

The University's School of Arts and Humanities has also given the project access to a digital ambassador. This means I can draw on the wealth of talent among staff and students across the humanities department.

By getting involved, students gain a credit on their CVs, as well as gaining meaningful industry experience to enhance learning.

So far I have English students working as researchers, computing students helping with embedding code, broadcast journalism students filming promotional videos, marketing students helping write press releases, media students managing social media platforms, as well as offering placements for students to shadow me for 30 hours to learn about project management.

I'm currently working with English, culture and media lecturer Georgia Stone to see if issues raised from the project could form the basis of final year dissertations, meaning the debate will continue in academic circles long after Dawn of the Unread has finished and illiteracy will get the kind of attention it desperately needs.

  • Notes for editors

    Dawn of the Unread is funded by Arts Council England. It starts on February 8 – National Libraries’ Day. Download Dawn of the Unread, or follow the blog and its progress on Twitter.

    James Walker is the chair of the Nottingham Writers' Studio and literature editor at LeftLion and creative industries tutor at Nottingham Trent International College.

    Nottingham Trent University runs masters programmes in Creative Writing, Media and Globalisation and Journalism.

    It also supports graduates with an interest in digital culture who wish to pursue doctoral research. For more information please contact Professor Nahem Yousaf, academic team leader in the school of Arts and Humanities.

Expert opinion: Dawn of the Unread and the battle to engage with teenagers

Published on 7 February 2014
  • Category: Press office; School of Arts and Humanities

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