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Literacy for Young People on the Outside of Education

Years ago now, during the Round 8 funding for mentoring young offenders, I sat in a meeting where a woman from the Basic Skills Agency stated categorically that you couldn’t sit a teenaged offender down at a table and teach them to read. It just wasn’t possible. It was early days for That Reading Thing and, lacking guts, I let that comment slide by while fuming at the arrogance of a specialist who was consigning our most vulnerable teens to the slag heap of educational failure.

Pretty much every day in the decade since then I’ve thought about how best to get exactly those young people sitting down and learning to read:

  • Training up youth workers and community volunteers who have time for a little relationship building.
  • Insisting on the the non-negotiable inclusion of The Deal in every TRT session. (You don’t have to know anything we haven’t learned together.)
  • Seeing TRT used as a transition tool for Year 6s looking forward to secondary school rather than further humiliating 11 year olds with baby books and yet more sight word memorisation.
  • Encouraging schools to get teachers all using sound-based spelling strategies.
  • Offering the only reading method I know which is a paradoxical blend of “sitting down and learning” and a very laid back, relational and safe environment.

Whenever I’m flagging in this (to quote the SHINE Trust) “urgent – but unglamorous” task, something like the following arrives in my inbox. (all names changed etc.)

P is a 17 year old with more struggles than just reading. He’s under the supervision of his local youth offending team and out of education, though he’d like to get back in. He’s been tested for specific learning disabilities because of his low level of understanding around general concepts. He meets weekly with Fiona, a community volunteer who completed the two day That Reading Thing training and is committed to seeing where improved reading and improved communication in general can take this young man.

Thought I’d touch base and update you with P’s progress. I gave him his Level 25 certificate last week and completed L26. I’ve been using the spelling game to review and revise each level the following week before moving on.


His confidence and application are continuing to improve and his YOT worker is continuing to do extra reading with him. She told me that when they are out in the car P is reading signs and captions and is much more communicative which is heart-warming.


He is still weak listening to and identifying some sounds and over-relies on his sight memory rather than combining auditory cues, e.g when asked to spell agree he wrote agment without saying the sounds, (I do remind him all the time but he was convinced he had written it correctly and didn’t need to listen to the sounds!!! – He can be stubborn but we got there in the end!) When he does say sounds when spelling he is usually successful.


I’ve tapped into his encyclopaedic knowledge of cars and have got some Top Gear books out of the library. The text has been challenging but it’s given us the opportunity to practise skills and discuss the text. He re-reads favourite bits too! He is using context to good effect but still needs prompting to slow down or check as he does continue to plough on after errors that detract from his understanding.


I’ll probably have completed the programme after another 4 sessions, what happens at the end? P will still need lots of reading practice and revision as his retention isn’t great but his skills are much better.

In another post I’ll write about the difficulties faced by older struggling readers that are highlighted in this progress report but, for now, I’ll be genuinely chuffed for P and for all the other “P’s” around the country who are courageously facing their longstanding anxieties about education and making real measurable progress with the help of a committed That Reading Thing tutor.

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