In March 2022, a joint review of reading education in prisons was published by Ofsted and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, highlighting barriers that prevent prisoners from receiving the support that they need. This support is particularly important as the report highlighted the fact that 57% of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those expected of an 11 year old.
Novus staff at HMP Risley have made a real difference to the education of learners there, by combining creativity and learning from good practice to embed reading in lessons and provide a wealth of opportunities for their learners to read for pleasure.
Drop Everything and Read to engage readers
Having heard about the success of Drop Everything and Read (an initiative where lessons are stopped to allow dedicated reading time for all) in schools, the education department decided to see if it would work in a prison context. Learners were surveyed about their preferences and asked which texts they would like to read as part of DEAR time.
By involving their learners in the choices of what to read, they made sure that they had access to engaging reading material and DEAR now happens at the end of every teaching session for 20 minutes.
It has been particularly successful in the industrial cleaning workshop. Learners here have a broad range of abilities and interests, and this is reflected in the eclectic contents of the bookcase where Roald Dahl sits next to Wilkie Collins and between copies of European Cleaning Journal.
Rachel Barrass, HMP Risley’s industrial cleaning trainer and site reading champion, describes the experience of setting DEAR up:
“The majority of my learners are interested in reading. I didn’t think they would be, but they actually were. Some of them say they don’t like to read but give them a newspaper or a pub quiz book and they do.”
As well as giving free choice of books, Rachel also links reading activities to the enrichment calendar: “We read Robbie Burns poetry for Burns Night. One of the learners put on a great Scottish accent!”
Rachel has also noticed how allowing time for reading at the end of each lesson helps learners to manage neurodiversity, simply knowing that reading is happening at the end of the session has a relaxing and calming effect.
Foreign Language Texts to encourage reading
HMP Risley also has a large foreign national population, and it has previously proved challenging to make sure that these learners are able to enjoy reading when they are just starting to learn English.
Nicola Swain, the hub manager for functional skills and English as a second language (ESOL), forged links with Merseyside Polonia, a local Polish community organisation, who asked their members for help. Because Nicola had asked Polish learners what they liked to read, she was able to provide a wish list of texts. The group scoured their bookshelves and generously donated 200 Polish language fiction and history books by international and native authors.
Catalogued by the IT mentor, they are enjoyed by learners who, despite sometimes having a good command of English, just want the freedom to lose themselves in a book without having to stop to look up words they don’t understand or decipher language nuances and idioms.
One learner explained how it helps him: “I can enjoy something in my own language.” Another said that he enjoyed the books because “It’s interesting to read about the war. I welcome people asking me what books I want.” It was clear that these learners were benefitting greatly from being able to exercise choice and control and reconnecting to their home country, all done through reading.
Embedding Reading in Construction Courses
Reading has also formed the basis of an ambitious project in the joinery workshop at HMP Risley. Learners challenged themselves to create a bookcase in the shape of head with shelves representing facial features. Joinery trainer Paul Dobson explained how the learners looked at a range of bookcases but chose this one to set themselves a challenge. Because it was scaled down, learners also had to use maths to calculate measurements and communication skills to negotiate paint choices.
The bookcase sits between celebrations about what learners are reading and information about how reading supports mental health and neurodiversity which has encouraged prison staff to pick up a book when they went home.
When asked how he felt about building the bookcase, one learner said he was “satisfied, proud. We achieved it. You leave a little mark behind. People will say ‘That looks nice. How did you do it?’ It inspires others.” Paul has noticed learners are now bringing books to the workshop to share with each other and are keener to read during DEAR time. He explained the next challenge was to build a seating area.
Embedding digital skills through reading
If learners at Risley want to read something shorter, they have the option of using their Google board. When they have a general knowledge question that they’re unable to answer themselves, they can write this on the board.
Questions are passed to admin who conduct an internet search and print off the first answer. This gives the learner an opportunity to read factual information that is of interest to them and to practise how to word internet searches most effectively. Recent questions have been on topics such as space, fishing, football statistics and debates over the best games console.
Next Steps at HMP Risley
More links will be explored with local Lithuanian and Romanian communities to obtain books to cater for a greater range of international prisoners. Discussions are currently underway to arrange visits from local poets and to establish reading groups with support from the library. Novus are also collaborating with prison colleagues to deliver CPD for all staff on supporting and encouraging reading throughout the establishment.
To read more from other establishments on how they are embedding reading into all parts of their curriculum, visit our news section.