One Page: Learning to read really is for everyone

Ian Merrill
January 10, 2024

Across the UK, around 16% of adults struggle to read. There are many different reasons why someone might not get the chance to learn this crucial skill at school. What matters to me is that it’s never too late to learn, and that we can help.


Shannon Trust was founded in 1997, and so far, most of our work has been in prisons, where the statistics for low literacy and numeracy are significantly higher than in the general population. This has given us valuable experience in helping learners who are ‘hard to reach’. Time and again we have seen our peer-based approach work, and people make a new start, feeling different about themselves and building a more positive future, for them and their families.


Our core idea is simple, we inspire those who can read to support those who can’t. It’s a different way of learning – one to one, away from classrooms and the expectations of a formal curriculum. It’s the mentor-learner relationship that makes the difference. Everyday people working together, understanding that we all have different skills and talents, and that we all learn in different ways at our own pace.


This is what helps those who have found it difficult to engage with formal education before. I’m keen that in 2024, we continue to support as many learners in the criminal justice system as we can, knowing how much our help is needed there, and at the same time, expand what we do in the community too, so that others can benefit from our learning model.


You may have heard guest editor, Professor Jason Arday, talking with Jay Blades on Radio 4’s Today programme on 30 December. It was a powerful conversation. Both their stories are inspiring.


Jason Arday did not learn to read until he was 18. Having opened a door he kept going, despite sometimes finding learning slow and painful. He’s now professor of sociology of education at Cambridge University, advocating for better support and understanding for people who are neurodivergent and or have a disability.


Jay Blades has spoken publicly about his own struggles with reading, mainly to encourage others who, like him, cope by adjusting their lives to avoid reading, to seek out help and try again. Earlier in the same programme, several adults who have recently learned to read talked about the difference it’s made in their lives: not worrying about letters, labels and instructions; and how they now feel being able to read stories to their grandchildren or help with homework.


One of Jay Blades’ suggestions for learning was to ‘adopt a granny’. He sees this as a way to slow right down, and take time. It sounds a lot like peer-led learning – the idea of someone (of whatever age) who believes in you, who is patient, kind and wants to help, who understands that sometimes learning doesn’t come easy, who encourages you and doesn’t mind going over things 3 or 4 more times, however long it takes. Someone who wants you to learn, and who thinks the sessions you have together are worthwhile and enjoyable.


An important feature of peer-led learning is that everyone feels good about it. This means mentors and community reading coaches also benefit, with a sense of satisfaction and purpose from helping others and sharing their skills. They may also gain practical experience and a sense of trust or responsibility through associated tasks. Negotiating time out of cells or a quiet space in a prison setting for instance, or sorting out a regular venue in a community location. Added to this of course, mentors and learners absorb knowledge from each other. We all have experiences to pass on. All these things enrich our lives, help our self-esteem and can lead to other interesting and rewarding roles.


How does peer-led learning work, and why do I believe Shannon Trust’s model can make a difference away from the prisons where we have focused so much effort over the past 20 odd years?


Our learners and mentors work one to one, in short sessions, and in a relaxed and informal environment. They move through our learning material at the learner’s pace, rewinding as much as needed. This means learning with Shannon Trust is very flexible; there’s no pressure.  


Shannon Trust learners want to learn. Our programme isn’t compulsory.


Most come to us because they want to make some positive changes, to find new or different work, or because their own kids are starting school and they want to be able to support them. Motivation makes all the difference, especially on days when learning seems like one step forward then two steps back.


Most importantly, our learners and mentors form a bond. Most of us need to trust someone to admit we can’t do something and ask for help. When people learn from each other and work together, the ebb and flow of their relationship, and the strength and change that come from it, is important to each of them.


This learning partnership is what Shannon Trust is all about, understanding that everyone picks things up in their own way, and that time, patience and understanding in working through study material can help those who have missed out in the past to learn now. This underpins our vision, of a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning.


If you want to know more, get involved or you know someone who might benefit from what we do, please get in touch. You may be a policy maker, considering peer-led learning programmes; a commissioner of learning services wanting to supplement your work with a Shannon Trust led programme; a friend or family member of someone who struggles to read or do basic maths who wants to learn; or you may want to volunteer as a learning coach for your area.

What’s a Rich Text element?

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragra

phs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Static and dynamic content editing

A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin

editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

Headings, paragraphs, bloc

kquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.