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Our ability to read, write and communicate in everyday situations has a huge influence on our wellbeing and health. It helps us connect with each other, access information and services and is vital to our ability to take part in education and work.  

Jason Vit is Head of Literacy Hubs at the National Literacy Trust – a charity that works to improve the reading, writing, speaking and listening skills of children and families in the UK’s poorest communities. In this blog, he looks at the role of literacy in improving health and how a public health team in Middlesbrough is helping to put this into action.

People with good literacy skills are better able to access opportunities that help them live longer, healthier and happier lives. Higher literacy levels are associated with:

  • employment, higher-paid work and skills development through access to work-related training
  • better quality housing
  • lower levels of alcohol consumption and smoking
  • better mental health – adults with low literacy are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression; in women with very low literacy, the risk increases five-fold.

Around 6.8 million adults in the UK lack basic literacy skills, meaning that they don’t have the reading and writing abilities expected of an 11-year old. This prevalence of low literacy limits people’s life chances and drives inequalities in health, which can persist across generations. It can also be costly to public services. In 2009, KPMG conservatively estimated the annual cost of poor literacy at £2.5 billion; made up of costs in crime, health, special needs support, behavioural issues and unemployment.

Middlesbrough: Investing in literacy to improve health

The Public Health team at Middlesbrough Council are acting on the evidence that links literacy and health, and have quickly become one of our most dynamic partners. Four years ago, we established the first National Literacy Trust Hub in Middlesbrough, in partnership with the local authority and with support from the Booker Prize Foundation. This experimental, decade-long campaign aims to tackle intergenerational low literacy, boost the literacy levels of children and their families, and improve health outcomes. By bringing together a diverse range of partners, changing ways of working and campaigning, education outcomes have already been improved throughout the town.

The Public Health team supported a member of staff from within the council to become the Hub Manager – a dedicated person on the ground, seconded to the National Literacy Trust. Their remit was to improve literacy by understanding the local challenges of low literacy and helping public services, third sector organisations and businesses to work together to address them.

The partnership has actively invested in programmes to improve literacy at different stages of childhood and across different generations. Examples include:

Early Words Together

Five-year-olds in Middlesbrough have some of the lowest communication, language and literacy skills in the country. These children start school at a real disadvantage, from which most don’t recover during their school life.

The Early Words Together programme trains early years professionals and volunteers to work with parents and children aged three to five, building parents’ confidence so that they can support their child’s communication, language and literacy skills at home. The justification for the programme is simple: parents have a massive influence on the health of their children, and parents in areas with the worst health outcomes have some of the lowest literacy levels.  

To date, the programme has worked with 200 families from the most deprived communities in Middlesbrough and is having an incredible impact. Children from these families have progressed four times faster than their peers nationally in terms of communication, language and literacy development.

James Cook University Hospital programme

The National Literacy Trust has been working with the premature baby charity Bliss to provide new parents with books and advice on reading with their baby and to give neonatal nurses literacy training.

We know that parents speaking to their baby is very important for bonding and neurological development. We also know that being on a neonatal ward is incredibly hard for parents, who are in a highly stressful environment during a worrying and upsetting time. The solution we came up with was to give these parents a Literacy Pack, which includes:

  • children’s books
  • a diary to record thoughts and feelings
  • information about joining a local library
  • a list of the things that parents can look forward to when they take their baby home

We have been providing Literacy Packs to new parents on neonatal wards at James Cook University Hospital for over two years and the programme is making a real difference. One mum, Helen, whose son James was born prematurely at 28 weeks said: ‘The books and stories were… a godsend for our family.’ The staff at the hospital have been crucial to the success of the programme, giving out packs and encouraging parents to read to their babies.

We have now launched the project in Stoke and are looking for funding to roll this out more widely in the UK.

Literacy is fundamental

Through these programmes and others, the National Literacy Trust Hub has taken on the challenge of tackling low literacy in Middlesbrough and led the way for other council departments, organisations and sectors to look anew at the challenges low literacy presents in their community. Literacy is a fundamental underpinning to the health, wealth and happiness of everybody in society – and there is a role for everyone to play.

Jason Vit is Head of Literacy Hubs at the National Literacy Trust

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