New research endorses plan to ensure every prisoner is a reader


A new report by Birmingham City University praises an innovative reading plan that aims to make every prisoner a reader. 

Research from the University’s School of Education shows that after completing six months of the Turning Pages intervention by charity Shannon Trust, adults in custody increased the number of words read by over 50 per cent. 

School of Education

Birmingham City University

Launched in 2015, Turning Pages was specially commissioned by Shannon Trust for its Reading Plan, and has been designed specifically to support the reading development of adult learners within the context of prison. 

Peer mentors

The Shannon Trust Reading Plan sits outside formal education and Turning Pages is facilitated entirely by peer mentors rather than teachers or tutors. The new report highlights that learners saw private, one-to-one support from mentors and a chance to work at their own pace as key factors for successful learning. 

Turning Pages makes use of a synthetic phonics approach to supporting reading development. Synthetic phonics is a method of teaching reading which first introduces the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words. 

The new report, ‘Turning Pages, Changing Lives: An Evaluation of the Shannon Trust Reading Programme Turning Pages’, stresses that the initiative has improved the reading of all learners, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, whether or not they had a learning difficulty or dyslexia, or spoke English as an additional language. 

“The report backs up what we hear on the ground, that Turning Pages not only helps people gain reading skills needed for employment on release but allows families to reconnect through reading. There’s little more powerful than someone telling you they will now be able to sit and read with their child.” 

Turning pages

Turning Pages has been implemented in 124 prisons across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and helps over 4,000 people in prison to read each year. The 2016 Coates Review identified the Shannon Trust reading scheme as an example of good practice in unlocking prisoner potential. 


Birmingham City University academics Professor Alex Kendall and Dr Tom Hopkins have now completed a one-year evaluation of Turning Pages, with their report launched on Wednesday 11 January at CCLA, Senator House in London. 

“Turning Pages has provided prisoners with productive opportunities to re-engage with learning at their own pace and work towards realistic goals that are meaningful to their own lives, both in prison and looking ahead to life after their release. 

“One of the prisoners we interviewed during our research said that Turning Pages is ‘an investment for the future’ and we have found that this is most certainly the case.” 

Literacy in prisons

Nearly 50 per cent of prisoners have a literacy level expected of a primary school leaver and below that needed for successful employment. Shannon Trust is aiming to enhance prisoner’s chances of successful rehabilitation with its Reading Plan, a peer-mentored initiative that gives prisoners a vital skill and a fresh start in life. 

The reasons why someone has reached adulthood without learning to read are numerous and various: many have specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or disrupted school experience; too often it is simply that they didn’t have someone in their life with time and patience to teach them. 

David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University was also involved in preparing the new report. He said: 

“Turning Pages provides important chances for learners and mentors to exercise some control and choice in the otherwise highly regulated prison environment. 

“Prisoner mentors supporting learners is central to the success of the programme. Mentors get to know their learners and between them ‘negotiate’ the sessions or tailor their approach to suit them, which is further motivated by the fact that the Reading Plan sits outside formal education.” 

The report concludes with recommendations from Birmingham City University that the Reading Plan remains in its current form. The research also suggests that the initiative is more heavily promoted across all prison staff and prospective learners, and that sessions are embedded into the core prison day.

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