Blog: Helping ESOL Learners in Prison to Read Through Programme Partnership

In this guest blog, Shannon Trust reflects on the impact of the partnership with The Bell Foundation and the life-changing support given to ESOL learners in prison through the Turning Pages reading guides.

Shannon Trust is a charity which was originally founded to help the 57% of people in prison who struggle with their reading, to learn to read. Through a peer-led programme, mentors (people in prison who can read) work with learners through Turning Pages, a set of structured reading manuals.

Turning Pages is suitable for those who have never read a word before, including both native English speakers, and ESOL learners (English for Speakers of Other Languages). The learner works at their own pace, with no exams or classrooms.

The Bell Foundation has supported Shannon Trust since 2015. This support has enabled Shannon Trust to meet the needs of ESOL learners and has supported the development of the Turning Pages reading guides.

The impact of Turning Pages

In 2021 alone, the programme engaged more than 1,200 learners and mentors across 123 prisons in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Despite making up just 10% of the prison population, around 30% of Shannon Trust’s learners are ESOL learners, which shows the demand for support amongst this demographic.

One of the Shannon Trust’s ESOL learners said: “Before learning to read, I struggled a lot. I didn’t get myself in any form of small talk due to the lack of confidence, nor debates. Because I couldn’t indulge in these activities, I used to get wound up easily. I’d lash out a lot at people and it affected my relationships big time.”

And now? “My vocabulary has changed by a great amount, which has made my confidence grow loads. I’m now able to articulate myself better and I’m using bigger/better words. I’m also able to learn more because I can finally read! I was just copying people whenever they were using words in context. Now, all that has changed because of the progress that I’ve made… I’m able to understand better because my listening skills have got so much better. I don’t feel left out from conversations with my friends or people in general.”

Shannon Trust’s ESOL learners report that they like the peer-led approach of Turning Pages as this is less intimidating than a traditional education environment. Moreover, the Turning Pages manuals and accompanying books are easy to follow and build confidence quickly as learners move through the manuals.

Shannon Trust has also used funding from The Bell Foundation to develop additional, specialist training for mentors in how to support ESOL learners. This training includes supporting ESOL learners with the additional challenges they may face, testing and challenging assumptions about ESOL learners and their reading ability, and practical techniques and tips that could help with learning.

Building on the success of the partnership, after testing with learners, Shannon Trust is planning comprehension exercises to accompany the reading books. This includes ESOL learners, who can sometimes struggle to understand the words they have learned to say out loud when written on a page. Shannon Trust also now works with a number of partner organisations to support adults to learn to read in the community, utilising the same learning model that has worked so well in prisons.

Ian Merrill, CEO of Shannon Trust said “The Bell Foundation’s support of Shannon Trust, and particularly the development of Turning Pages, has been vital in helping us to support learners across the prison estate, and beyond. We are grateful for their ability to help us achieve our vision of a future where nobody is left out of learning.”

Emily Giles, Criminal Justice Policy and Programme Manager at The Bell Foundation said: “Speakers of English as a second or additional language (ESL) are too often disadvantaged and isolated from mainstream support and education in our stretched prison system.”

“Organisations like Shannon Trust, offering innovative learning opportunities that benefit speakers of ESL and native English speakers alike, have a huge impact on breaking down this inequality and supporting equal access to justice and rehabilitation for speakers of ESL in prison.”

Find out more

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