One Page: You need not be a teacher to teach anyone to read

Ian Merrill
October 5, 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.


You need not be a teacher to teach anyone to read


When Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published a piece for World Literacy Day on the importance of reading in prisons, I was delighted that he mentioned Shannon Trust. It’s great to be noticed for making a difference. I’m particularly proud that he acknowledged our mentors’ commitment to helping their fellow prisoners learn to read.


Regular followers of One Page will know how I believe this mentor-learner relationship is a lasting force for good.


Charlie Taylor stresses the value of reading, not just as a practical skill but as something to enrich all our lives, through imagination, empathy for others and as an ‘escape’. I agree. It’s easy to imagine how much reading means when it opens a door out of a prison cell, but it’s also beneficial for others, whether we’re on a long train journey, lying awake at night or recharging after a day’s work.


Learning to read can make a profound difference.


One of our learners describes what it means for him: “I have loved working with my mentor on Shannon Trust. He has helped me so much. I couldn’t read at all, now I can read a book a day. I can’t wait to get out so that I can read to my children. This has changed my life so much, made me more confident and enabled me to speak out.”


This ripple effect means families and communities benefit too.


Of course, people outside the criminal justice system also struggle with literacy. At Shannon Trust, we believe nobody should be left out of learning. We also believe in the power of learning from each other, both in prisons and in the community.


Charlie Taylor calls for skilled education staff, to bring basic reading into core prison teaching. I advocate something else – practical support for those prisoners who are helping others learn to read, like space to study and guaranteed time out of cells for their Shannon Trust work. And outside prisons, support for peer-led learning and encouragement for those who want another chance to learn to read.  


Shannon Trust’s approach works, especially for those who were put off at school or found traditional education difficult. Our model means anyone who can read can help anyone else take their first steps in reading, and then build on what they’ve learnt. We train volunteer reading coaches (mentors in prisons and now volunteers in the community) to use our Turning Pages manuals, then guide and encourage those starting to read.


As one of our mentors explains: “There are no real time limits, no pressure… this gives learners a calm attitude and a relaxing session knowing they’ll not fail if they do not get something right in, say, 2 weeks. Also it is one to one, not a classroom, so if they ask a question it is between us.”


I think it’s the human connection that makes Shannon Trust learning stand out.


We all have different skills, and learn in different ways. Someone who can read easily may wish they could draw, or do carpentry or play the guitar. When two people work together informally, building trust and finding common ground, as equals, learning becomes a shared discovery rather than something imposed. One of our learners said: “Having someone sit with you really helps, and we get to talk about other stuff that’s going on. Working with a mentor helped me want to go to each session and not be shy about what I could not do.”


I firmly believe that Shannon Trust can make a difference in communities as well as prisons. This sort of development takes time of course, but we are confident about that because as one of our mentors explains: “Sitting down with a mentee for the first time and listening to their story and concerns about reading or their doubts about their ability never seems to change. Likewise, the enjoyment I get when I see my mentee beam from ear to ear as they master words for the very first time never changes. Every progress check, every book completion is success for both of us.”


We think many more people can get involved as we expand in the community.


There’s no doubt the need is there, and so is the potential for change. As Charlie Taylor says, reading doesn’t just have a utilitarian value, enabling someone to get a better job, or engage with instructions, or help the kids with homework, however valuable those things are. It is worth so much more.


Doesn’t this mean we should encourage people to learn in the way that suits those best? And very often, that can be with someone alongside them like a peer mentor or a volunteer coach.


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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