The Shannon Trust

Work with offenders profiles the leading charity helping prisoners read

This is the eighth in our occasional series on key independent organisations operating within the criminal justice sector.

The Shannon Trust was founded by Christopher Morgan in 1997 following a series of letters with a life sentenced prisoner, Tom Shannon, in a penpal scheme run by the Prison Reform Trust.

Reading Tom’s letters, Christopher learned about prison life and the shocking levels of poor literacy amongst prisoners. In 1995 the letters were put together in a book titled, ‘Invisible Crying Tree’. The royalties from the book were used to found the Shannon Trust. One of the key success factors from the beginning of the Charity was its insistence on a peer mentoring approach, throughout its history the motto has always been “by prisoners for prisoners” – with those who can read teaching those who can’t.

In 2015, the Charity launched its Turning Pages programme in every prison in England, Wales & Northern Ireland, with a series of five easy to follow manuals. One of the reasons for the Shannon Trust’s success is that the person mentoring the learner doesn’t need any specialist training. All they need is the motivation and a small amount of free time – 20 minutes, 5 times a week is the optimum but people learning to read still make great progress with fewer sessions.

Turning Pages uses a “synthetic phonics” approach - a method of teaching English reading which first teaches the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words. Another reason for the success of the approach is that Turning Pages is interactive; learners build and practice their skills working through a range of different activities. Progress checks are built into each manual so learners and mentors can be confident new skills have been embedded. It is that early feeling of making progress which engages new readers and gives them the motivation to keep going. As these progress checks are completed Turning Pages reading books become available. These have been written to match the reading skills learners have covered so that they are giving the chance to put their new skills into action and so they can experience the joy of reading for pleasure from early on in the first manual.

The programme was formally evaluated by Birmingham City University, who found very positive results in improved reading skills:

  • Significant gains in word reading and non-word reading scores were found for all Learners involved in the Turning Pages evaluation (regardless of their initial reading ability) during the first three months and from baseline to the final six-month period.
  • Learners reported an increase in reading confidence over the six-month period.
  • Learners reported a significant increase in their self-rated reading attainment, enjoyment and reading comprehension ability over the six-month period.
  • Learners who had either completed Turning Pages or were reading the final manual, read significantly more words and non-words compared to their peers and rated themselves as more able readers over the six-month period.

Perhaps even more interesting were the findings about the effectiveness of the peer mentor model. Learners and Mentors were found to place significant value on the informal, non-institutional nature of Turning Pages and identified the adult focus of the programme, one-to-one support of Mentors and the opportunity to work at their own pace as key factors in supporting successful learning.

The evaluators found that the Learner/Mentor pairing was highly valued by all parties and central to the success of the programme. What they describe as the “nuanced, individualised approach to support taken by Mentors (‘grounded pedagogies’) in negotiation with their Learners” was seen by Learners as central to their success.

It appears that the success of Turning Pages is related to the ‘un-schooled’, social approach Turning Pages has to adult learning (the sessions take place completely outside formal education) which appears to be one of the main aspects which encouraged prisoners to take part.

Most importantly, the evaluation found that there were many related benefits for Learners after six months on Turning Pages. Two in particular stand out:

  • Learners were reading more for functional participation within prison and for social engagement. This also included reading materials that Learners had reported a lack of confidence reading prior to their engagement with Turning Pages, such as legal letters, books and application forms.
  • Turning Pages provided Learners with productive opportunities to re-engage with learning, build confidence and work towards goals that were meaningful to their own lives.

These successes have much more impact when recounted in learners’ own words:

“It’s not so embarrassing because before I used to go and ask people if I had a letter can they read it for me…since I’ve been doing Turning Pages I can read it, I can read it myself so it’s private, it’s not shared.”

“You will improve and you will get somewhere…it progresses you more because you’re taking in things better than you would if you were stuck in a classroom with 10, 12 other people. You know what I mean?”

“It’s just the fact that I’m learning…so obviously I’m feeling better about myself, for the first time learning, instead of sitting inside doing nothing…it’s an investment for the future.”

Readers who would like to know more about the Shannon Trust’s work can find their website here.