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Post-16 Phonics in the youth justice system

I’ll be reposting some relevant blog items in light of the launch of post-16 phonics for functional skills in England. Phonics in this context often involves a lot of “unlocking” knowledge the learner already possesses but doesn’t know how to use. Sometimes they need to get past their anger and shame over past school experiences. Here’s one such young person.


Why would you work on reading with a young offender? There are plenty of reasons not to. Being in close quarters with an angry young person can be intimidating until you realise that their anger is much more likely to be about fearing failure. And that becomes the job, not to teach reading but to let the young person discover that they don’t need to fear failure when they’re with you. The reading will follow.

From our first moment of meeting, 17 year old Chris made it very clear that he didn’t “do education”. He used the word never and no way to describe his feelings about what I was proposing. So instead of an assessment, we chatted. I asked if he would try a bit of one of the assessments and promised that it was nothing like school. He said he would after a cup of tea. He made a great cuppa, we swapped a couple of recipes (no kidding), then he kept his side of the bargain. He could decode every word on the first page except for one little error. When I showed him the page, he corrected it easily.

He did the same with the second and third pages of the word reading assessment. I don’t usually show a young person their results but Chris needed to know. He said that he never got anything right at school. After some more chat he said, “I don’t usually do anything like education but I think I might do this. I hate when I have to fill out a form and I write like a two year old.”

In the course of our meetings I learned that he was “special needs” so he couldn’t read. He learned that the label was a huge weight that had been discouraging him from even trying. On the fourth meeting he was reading a book that I’d brought from home off my own bookshelf, a book that I’d read and enjoyed, a history book with long words and complex sentences. We took it slowly and talked about what was going on in the story.

In the penultimate paragraph is this sentence:

“The public conscience was at last awakened and soon after that there were changes.”

I told Chris that he had read that as though he really understood what it meant and I asked if he could say it in his own words. He hesitated and thought carefully before he spoke.

“It means that people finally saw what was going on and it was bad so they changed things.”

This from a lad who considered himself so “special needs” that he couldn’t learn, who likened himself to a two year old and who, apparently, never got anything right. He’s got a long way to go. He may not get a degree or even a GCSE. His life is still difficult, but he now knows that he’s not stupid or thick or a failure and he’s got some new strategies for getting things down on paper. And our lessons? We only ever had four because he decided he could handle a college course.

Not all relationships are so dramatic, but every young person who takes even a few educational steps accomplishes something worth celebrating. For me, the most exciting thing to see is a young person feeling safe enough to make a mistake in my presence.

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