Inside Out Literacies: Literacy Learning with a Peer-Led Prison Reading Scheme

Inside Out Literacies: Literacy Learning with a Peer-Led Prison Reading Scheme

Alex Kendall (Birmingham City University, Birmingham, UK) and Thomas Hopkins (Birmingham City University, Birmingham, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2019010106

Abstract

Since 1997, adult literacy education has been of increasing interest to UK policy makers amid perceptions/claims of a causal relationship between attainment in literacy and positive economic participation, social inclusion, and life chance transformation. However, research in the field of literacy studies suggests that many prisoners who identify as beginner readers, report feeling alienated by formal education failing to take sufficient account of the social identities learners bring to their learning or how they want to use literacy to bring about change in their lives. This has resulted in deficit models of the prisoner as learner that impose ‘spoiled educational identities' and fail to engage prisoners as active, agentic participants in their learning. In this article, the authors draw on data produced in the qualitative phase of a year-long study across the English prison estate of Shannon Trust's prison-based reading plan, to explore alternative approaches to prison literacy education that challenge the traditions of formal education and put learner identity and aspiration at the heart of the beginner reader learning process. The qualitative phase of the project involved twelve focus groups across eight prison settings and included 20 learner, and 37 mentor participants engaged in the Shannon Trust peer-reading programme. The authors listen closely to the voices of learners and mentors describing their experiences of peer to peer learning and plug in Anita Wilson's concepts of educentricity and third space literacies to read participants' experiences of formal and informal literacy education. They make use of this analysis to identify and describe a ‘grounded pedagogy' approach that pays attention to learning as social practice and enables prisoners to re-imagine themselves both as learners and social actors and to begin to connect their learning to self-directed desistence identity building. The authors conclude with a consideration of the implications of this work for prison literacy teaching and the potential role of grounded pedagogy ideas in the development of more provocative approaches to prison teacher education.
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Introduction

Over the last two decades, adult literacy education has been of growing interest to policy makers in the United Kingdom (UK) as perceptions of the causal relationship between attainment in literacy and positive economic participation, social inclusion, and life chance transformation have become increasingly ingrained in international discourses about education and productivity. Studies aiming to make empirical connections between crime and education (Machin, Marie & Vujic, 2010), have prompted some commentators to suggest that low literacy attainment might be a risk factor for participation in criminal activity with claims from some researchers that approximately 48 per cent of adult prisoners have reading abilities equivalent to that of an 11-year-old (Morrisroe, 2014; Canton, Hine & Welford, 2011). It is therefore no surprise that literacy education is currently high on the UK government’s agenda for prison reform (Coates, 2016). However, research in the field of Literacy Studies suggests that many prisoners who identify as beginner readers report feeling alienated by formal education which, it is argued, is too often ‘done to them’ (Wilson, 2007, p. 192) failing to take sufficient account of the social identities learners bring to their learning or how they want to use literacy to bring about change in their lives. This has resulted in deficit models of the prisoner as learner that impose ‘spoiled educational identities’ and fail to engage prisoners as active, agentic participants in their learning. We contextualise this failure within a wider policy framework for literacy education and draw on data produced in the qualitative phase of a year-long study across the English prison estate of Shannon Trust’s prison based reading plan, to explore alternative approaches to prison literacy education, that challenge the traditions of formal education and put learner identity and aspiration at the heart of the beginner reader learning process.

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