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Literacy for Young People who May or May Not Have Offended

posted in: Young Offenders | 0

Here’s something I wrote last year that came back into my mind as I attended the Dyslexia & Youth Offending conference last week. I wrote it in response to a post on the RRF boards about using sound-based reading methods with teenagers.

I’m sure you all know this but I’m going to say it anyway: reading deficits in young offenders exist for many reasons – not just a lack of good instruction in primary school. They are very complex packages of educational, social and emotional needs. I also don’t talk about young offenders really – rather, “marginalised young people” (a mouthful, I know) – because young people in YOIs are just the ones who got caught and sentenced to an institution, not the ones who got a community sentence or an ASBO or who are just hanging with the wrong crowd or who have never been caught. Most “young offenders” I’ve met are really just 50% teenager, 30% risk-taker and 20% up to no good for a variety of reasons. Most of them won’t offend as adults – whether they can read or not.

These young people, who are at odds with their communities and have no way into the secondary school system, need more than just a good reading method.They need a reading method that will make them feel safe and a person delivering it who will make them feel safe – educationally and emotionally – and who will make them laugh. They need to learn that making a mistake doesn’t make you “thick” – a message they have picked up from the education system.

Some have genuine learning difficulties that may or may not have been identified officially, but, when a young person announces “I’m dyslexic”, I always ask, “Oh! Who told you that?” “My nan” and “my mum” are more common answers than “my teacher”.

Some have just missed it. Even if they were offered the best SP (synthetic phonics) instruction possible, they weren’t there often enough to grasp the principles and put them into practice.When you ask a young person if they remember learning to read and their answer is, “Nah – I was too busy throwing chairs at the teacher”, then you know you’ve got a hope of moving them along quickly! These are the students who make you feel like a miracle worker because they just get on with it and are reading in hours.

Some learned to read quite well but, because of being constantly in trouble in the classroom, can no longer access what it is they know. This is the kid who, after about 6 hours, was reading the travel section of the Telegraph. I SO wish I had a photo because I would have sent it to Conrad Black in prison. You can also reach these young people through spelling – something they think is beyond them because they weren’t good at memorizing.

One thing I’ve learned is that prisons house a lot of sensitive souls. They may have bravado in certain situations but not when they’re sitting in front of a printed page. I remember describing a young man as the most vulnerable teenager I’d ever met. His YOT worker laughed and said he was the terror of his street – fearing nothing and no one. Well I can promise you that he feared looking stupid because he couldn’t read. The reason we have “The Deal” in TRT is to reduce to nothing the chance of a young person feeling like they did in school when someone said, “Come on, you know this one. It’s easy.”

By allowing them to make mistakes with no fear of humiliation, we have a chance to help these young people develop a much healthier sense of self – where they can be proud of accomplishments that don’t involve violence or intimidation. We can also help them begin to perceive themselves as learners. These aren’t measured by any reading test.

There are so many young people coming to mind as I type this. I don’t know where they are or how good their reading is. I do know that they all finished TRT many steps ahead of where they started out from. This is a huge thing for young people who don’t see education as a viable part of their lives.

I’m sad that we’ve ended up doing more work in schools than out -but funders like numbers and, for the cost of getting one marginalised young person through TRT, we can work with five who have the life skills to get out of bed and get to school in uniform.

The Shine Trust described our work as “urgent (but unglamorous)”.
Luckily, I don’t do “glamorous” anyway!

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