The high rates of illiteracy among prisoners are well known. There are some good basic skills courses and excellent initiatives like the Shannon Trust’s Turning Pages. This is a reading programme designed to be taught one to one by a prisoner tutor to a prisoner learner. It runs in prisons nationwide and does a great job.
But becoming a reader is about more than functional skills. It’s also about stamina, commitment and developing interest. This is where a reading group can really help by offering a space for supported reading and enjoyable book talk.
’Not really looking forward to this but I’m gonna read it for the book club’
Some of PRG’s emergent groups do their reading together in the meeting. Facilitators may take the lead but invite anyone who wishes to take a turn. Chosen material, whether short stories, poems or essays, needs to be short enough to read and discuss in the session.
There are also lots of very short short stories available free online, for example here in the Huffington Post online.
Poems can catch the attention of newer readers and help them discover the pleasures of uncertainty.
‘E kept taking books off to his cell and bringing them back unopened. He was desperate to read well but explained that he just couldn’t work up the motivation. For the next meeting I printed out a few poems including Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. I read it slowly and when we began to go back through it, E started to ask questions: ‘What does he mean about ‘promises to keep’? What promises?’. Other members made suggestions: to be home for Christmas? To return to his girl? At the end of the session E told me, ‘You won’t believe what goes through my head but this poem might take some of it away if I read it often enough’
Some groups combine short material with something longer that they read together from meeting to meeting. For one PRG group it was Macbeth:
The men arrive very late but we get on with Macbeth. It’s hard to concentrate on it for long. But concentrate they do. M, who can barely read, chooses to read the modern English version in our dual version edition; he has chosen to be Macbeth: surprising, impressive; the others help him with words he can’t manage. Some good witches today, and everyone joins in the Double Double choruses.
Audiobooks can be a good way to get stuck in. The group listens to the beginning of a novel and discusses what’s being set up, where it might go and what kind of characters are been introduced. At the end of the session members take the book back to their cell to carry on reading on their own and report back at the next meeting.
Emergent groups may also enjoy challenges like reading and writing two sentence horror stories or six-word short stories, a genre supposedly created by Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale: baby shoes never worn’.
There are lots of websites full of them, such as this list in The Guardian.
‘He didn’t. She did. Big mistake’ A L Kennedy
‘In the end, everything simply began’ Ali Smith
Above all, don’t underestimate inexperienced readers: they can be astute and responsive interpreters who enjoy exploring complex stories and ideas.
‘The men in my ‘low literacy’ group make startling observations about what we read together and equally startling reflections on their own lives and experiences. They love the camaraderie of the group and the stories that take them to a different world’