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RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
Teaching GrownupsChristopher Morgan

I have only recently become a reader of this newsletter. I am not an educationalist but merely a grandparent, vastly concerned that my grandchildren should learn to read without stress, and enjoy happy, literate lives. Their schools have not always succeeded in this so I can appreciate the importance of the arguments discussed in the newsletter, but I would be mortally afraid of entering the fray myself. Except perhaps in one aspect which is that I wonder whether teachers trust and involve parents enough. The real subject of my contribution, however, is teaching prisoners. 

They say that, depending on your definition of illiteracy, there are between 4 and 6 million non-readers in Britain, unable to earn their living by other than the crudest means. It is no surprise that quite a few of these soon find themselves in our prisons, 40% of whose inmates are illiterate.  The prisons have Education Departments charged to teach prisoners basic skills and they try hard in difficult circumstances and on shrinking budgets. It is very difficult to teach a grownup to read in a class. Most have long since given up and concentrate their skills on hiding their deficiency. If they can be persuaded to attend classes, they are apt to sit at the back and let it wash over them. They are not allowed to take the prison’s education books back to their cells. Few make any real progress and yet their imprisonment offers a wonderful chance for them to learn. It is this which got me involved. 

Some years ago, I joined a pen-friend scheme, run by the Prison Reform Trust, and found myself corresponding with a lifer. What our correspondence revealed about prison life was so disturbing that the letters were published in a book called The Invisible Crying Tree. I did not want to earn money from it and he could not, so we set up a trust to help prisoners prepare for the out. After some hesitation, we decided that the best way would be to launch a literacy scheme. That was back in 1997. I was advised by the then Director of the Prison Service to take it to Wandsworth. “If it works there,” he said, “it will work anywhere.” 

The idea behind the scheme was to recruit better-educated prisoners to teach illiterate ones ‘on the wing’, that is to say, in their free time and not in the education department. To make this possible, we donated enough Toe by toe manuals for every teacher and pupil (mentor and mentee in prison language) to have one. We also supplied stationary to help them keep track of their progress. The lessons were to be short (maximum of 30 minutes), daily and one-on-one. Seen from the outside, it seemed so simple. 

For many reasons, it has not been simple. The cynicism of the prison service is certainly one of them but absolutely understandable. It must be unbelievably disillusioning to work every day in a place like Wandsworth. Do-gooders float in and out of prisons with the best intentions but are never there when the going gets tough, when a man goes mad with drugs or the bullies decide to burn out a sex-offender’s cell. Do-gooders are therefore viewed with suspicion by the staff and so were we. 

But they tried hard and we soon began to discover other problems. One was to find volunteer mentors. We did not ask much of them but one thing was to agree to stay in Wandsworth for another year. Well, the top priority for most Wandsworth inmates is usually to get sent somewhere else, anywhere else, as soon as possible. Nevertheless, we gradually accumulated a little pool of mentors who saw that it could be more worthwhile to spend their days teaching than sewing mailbags. 

Given that 40% of the inmates were probably non-readers, we did not think it would be too hard to find mentees. How wrong we were! First of all, of course, they could not read notices we put on the board! Secondly, their main pre-occupation was to hide their inability, not to admit to it. Even those who became aware of what was on offer were loath to come forward. Prisons are macho places where inmates do not want to look like goody-goodies trotting off to their lessons. Meanwhile the prisons had little idea where to look for candidates although recently they have introduced induction tests which cover the new intake. Some prisons have internal broadcasting systems but not Wandsworth. We had huge difficulties in finding mentees. 

One way and another, we apparently made progress but then a key mentor would be posted elsewhere or there would be trouble between a mentor and a mentee and everything would collapse.

By the spring of 2000, we were near giving up and I wrote to Wandsworth withdrawing the offer, but they asked for one more meeting. This was attended by a remarkable man called Neil Lodge who was an ordinary officer on the VPU (Vulnerable Prisoners Unit for sex offenders, ex-policemen and others at risk on the main wing). The VPU offered certain advantages because its population is more stable and they are never allowed out for work or any other reason. But the main thing was that Neil was really seized by the scheme’s potential and could see how our amateurish ideas could be made to work in a gaol. 

Within weeks it became clear that what had so long lain dead in the water was now on the move. He soon had six mentors and some twenty volunteers as mentees, and we found that twenty constituted a critical mass enabling others to overcome their embarrassment. Keda Cowling, author of Toe by toe, came down from Yorkshire and talked inspirationally to them all. The project has never looked back. That is not to say that there have not been problems. Gaols have more problems than outsiders can imagine, but Neil and what soon became his team of inmates were not to be discouraged. 

What I, for one, had not anticipated was the speed of their success. Not all mentees, of course, started from the same level. There were some who found the early stages of the course too easy but, while some might steam more quickly than others, none were allowed to bypass one line of one lesson. Not all mentees were in fact illiterate. The Toe by toe scheme is very helpful for foreigners wanting to master English. But most are out and out illiterates and yet, with very few exceptions, their progress has been phenomenal. Some broke through within months and now, sixteen months later, over forty mentees have graduated joyfully as readers, and it hasn’t cost anyone a penny. Well, to be accurate, it costs our trust £15 a time. We now have a waiting list of candidate mentees and several once troublesome inmates have calmed down. 

For me, it is little short of a miracle. It is the same for those taking part. In the summer of 2001, we held a little ceremony in Wandsworth to hand out the first batch of certificates to graduates, confirming that they had completed the course and could now read. I attended and found it quite moving, so undisguised was their happiness. One after another came to thank us and plead with us to spread the scheme through the whole prison system. 

What is the secret? Well, one is the Toe by toe system. I am sure most readers are familiar with it and I am not going to try and categorise it between the various methods discussed in the more learned articles on these pages. One of its great virtues from our point of view is the discipline it imposes on mentor and mentee alike. Together they must conquer every page. Another is its demonstrative way of measuring progress, so that the mentee can see how well he’s progressing towards his goal. We have introduced quite a lot of barely necessary form filling to emphasise this concept of progress and, after all, prisoners have plenty of time to fill in forms. But I think the real key is short daily lessons one-on-one. 

Some years ago, although not a professional teacher, my wife used to help in classes run by the LCC for adult illiterates. Having had to pay for their course, these really wanted to succeed but they only came once a week. They tried hard, took away homework, were helped by their families and returned week after week having more or less lost all that they had gained so far. Looking back, there were probably two reasons for the lack of progress. One was that the lessons were far too long. Half an hour is maximum for the sort of concentration required but it is, of course, ridiculous to expect someone to bus back and forth across London for a half-hour lesson. But, far more disastrous, it did not happen every day. Something newly learnt requires repetition and repetition soon, if it is going to stick. Equally, I am sure with children learning to read, a little every day and one-on-one is part of the secret. This is where the parents can support the teachers to work in a genuine partnership. 

My co-author of The Invisible Crying Tree is called Shannon and our Trust is called after him. We are now trying to carry the message to other prisons and are already in discussion with several but we are a long way from covering all 160. Anyone who believes in what we are doing and would like to help in any way is most welcome. 

The Shannon Trust, Pinehurst Farm, Steep Road, Crowborough, TN6 3RX

Editor’s comment:

Keda Cowling’s Toe by toe manual sounds ideal for the prison circumstances as described by Christopher. I appreciate Christopher sharing this information with us and wish the Shannon Trust well with their future work. We hope that we can be kept updated as to the spread and success of this project throughout British prisons. 

Keda Publications has now brought out An Aid to Comprehension manual. Stride Ahead has been written for students who can read but have difficulty in understanding what they are reading possibly because their minds are being too involved with the mechanics of decoding the written language to be able to give adequate attention to meaning. The Stride Ahead programme is not recommended for students until they have a reading age of 8 and a half years or above. For further information phone 01274 – 588278, or visit the Stride Ahead website at . As always, the RRF would be interested in any results from using this programme.Whilst on the subject of one to one teaching, this would be a good opportunity to mention the work of Springboard for Children. The mission states “Springboard for children provides a literacy lifeline for children with learning difficulties in inner city primary schools. A team of specialist teachers and trained volunteers offers one-to-one literacy teaching, to help children realise their full potential.” Springboard’s work was featured in the Telegraph magazine (26 January 2002) in a very positive light. For further information including donations or volunteering please contact Springboard for Children, 132 Friary Road, Peckham, London SE15 5UW (phone 020 – 7635 6797),  Naturally we wish Springboard well and hope to learn more about it over time.




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