How Novus is working with industry leaders to increase literacy levels in the prison population
Reading groups are an established way to create opportunities for our prisoners to read for pleasure. They are a great way to share thoughts and ideas about texts, practice discussion skills and learn about others’ opinions. How can you participate in a book group, though, if you’re not confident at reading?
This was the question posed by a unique collaboration with contributors from Novus, Shannon Trust, University College London, the Prison Reading Groups charity and the Claire Collins Consultancy. The project explored ways to run a reading group for emergent readers who are at the start of their reading journey and may have just begun to learn to read or lack confidence in reading.
Developing new methods to support reading in prison
Thirteen prisoners across HMP Thameside and HMP Liverpool participated in the groups for five weeks which were structured around a short story alongside other texts linked to it or inspired by participants’ preferences.
At the start of the first session, none of the participants saw themselves as confident, regular readers. Their lack of confidence often resulted from previous experiences in education or from challenges due to additional learning needs and some were understandably unsure what to expect.
Inclusive ways of working were established from the start. No expectations were put on participants to read aloud, and agreements were made on how to decline a turn to read and how to step in and help others if they weren’t sure how to decode a word. Copies of each text were supplied to the group members to keep so they could read along while others read aloud and also revisit them when back in their cells. This enabled those taking part to gain confidence around experiencing and responding to texts and exploring their reactions to them. One participant in Liverpool commented that the group was like “being in a live podcast” and that he enjoyed “hearing the different ways people read”. This helped him realise that there is no ‘correct’ way to read a text which made him more comfortable when it came to his own reading.
Participants’ suggestions for preferred reading material often took facilitators by surprise and the group read a varied range of texts from poetry, song lyrics, TV scripts, letters written by historical figures and facts about neckties. The fact that group members could have agency in the choice of reading material gave them ownership and increased their engagement with reading.
The texts read provoked really interesting discussions about previous experiences, social issues and the actions of others leading to greater levels of understanding and empathy among the group. Truly collaborative relationships were formed and prisoners who advised they had never read a whole book before were recommending poems to others outside the group.
The future of reading-inclusive education in English prisons
At the end of the five-week trial, participants were asking for it to be extended and other prisoners who had heard about it were asking to join. Feedback includes: “You’ve made me feel really welcome”, “I don’t like to read aloud because of my strong accent and people not understanding me, but it hasn’t been like that in these sessions” and “it gets me out of the jail for a bit”.
Feedback, reflections and outcomes from the trial will now be collated into a report with guidelines to be made available for our colleagues across the country who want to take steps in introducing the new methods in their own prison establishments.