One Page: How we help adults learn to read

Ian Merrill
November 7, 2023

Welcome to 'One Page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.


How we help adults learn to read


Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said “You are never too old to learn more than you already know and to become able to do more than you already can.” I love the way he reminds us that whenever we learn something new, particularly as an adult, we already have knowledge and skills. They might not be directly relevant, but they can be something we draw on in any new learning.


His words seem particularly apt for Shannon Trust learners. Adults who want to start to read, or to improve their reading, have a lifetime of experiences. They bring their skills and qualities to the learning process. But also their doubts, especially if they had bad experiences at school.


Regular readers of One Page, will know how much I believe in the transformative relationship that develops between our learners and their mentor or reading coach. It is one of the key strengths of peer led learning, because it involves regular people working together. As both bring their own experiences and interests to the time they share, the relationship is one of equals even though one wants to learn reading and the other wants to help them.


Inside and outside prison, empathy and insight help mentors and coaches to support and encourage learners. Progress in any learning is rarely steady, and sometimes other pressures and worries make it difficult to concentrate.


Human connections build trust and mutual understanding. Shannon Trust learners value their mentors being non-judgmental, discrete and trustworthy. Thinking how difficult it can be to say you cannot do something and ask for help, it is easy to see why.


Research published by Birmingham City University in 2019 showed that trust is needed too, enough to invest the effort to give Shannon Trust learning a try.


“You gotta trust him because you can’t read and write very well,” one of our learners explained to the Birmingham City University researchers. Another key element is ongoing trust in the mentor or coach keeping the relationship confidential, particularly when learners are wary of the reactions of others. I would like to think Shannon Trust’s reputation helps, but this sort of trust is something that grows over time during regular reading contact, and ultimately it depends on the two people involved.


Shannon Trust’s reading materials are designed for adults. Our Turning Pages programme is a set of 5 friendly, structured manuals that use a synthetic phonics approach. Alongside their mentor or reading coach, learners work through the different activities in the manuals. Our mentors even helped to write some of the activity and reading books that go with the manuals, meaning they are real-life stories that are relevant and engaging.


Some adults contact us because they want to read to their children, or support them with school work. When this happens, reading children’s stories together is engaging because the experience is shared, but it’s also good practice. In prison settings, our work with Storybook Dads and Storybook Mums means that our learners can have support as they rehearse, read and record a story for their child.


Repetition is an important part of any learning. It’s the way we train our brains, get quicker and build our confidence. Something that is important with Shannon Trust learning is that we do not have time limits, so progress is at the learner’s pace. There is no pressure to move on, or to try and learn more, until the learner feels ready. A learner can repeat an exercise or read a paragraph or page over and over again.


A learner works one to one with a mentor or reading coach. No one is singled out as struggling, or left feeling they are slower than their fellow pupils. We have short, frequent reading sessions, and progress through the manuals takes as long as it takes. Where learners opt for self-study, our resources and our Turning Pages Digital tool mean there is extra flexibility with time, and they can go over an exercise as much as they like.


All this supports our strong belief that anyone who can read, with the right tools and training, can help anyone else to learn to do so.


Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you; whether you agree, disagree or have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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