Tools for teaching (and how to spell them)
exploring English in vocational contexts

Novus: HMP Liverpool

This project captured a range of reflections on the experience of teaching and learning English in the context of vocational training in prisons. It challenged tutors’ assumptions about learners and led to clearer insights into and development of support for the needs of learners.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Previous research for OTLA 7 showed that HMP Liverpool’s body of learners has a desire for self-improvement but was not particularly engaged with Functional Skills learning. This project for OTLA 8 was intended to address how learner engagement and motivation could be captured and developed by strengthening links between English and vocational teaching. Instead of learning English as a separate topic, it was hoped that learners would find greater relevance by practising English directly in the context of vocational workshops therefore highlighting the importance of English to daily life and the workplace.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OLTA 8 Programme. The research focused on the education department of HMP Liverpool with delivery provided by Novus. It took place in the vocational workshops, particularly joinery, and involved a group of 12 learners undertaking a Level 1 joinery qualification. The project lead, an English tutor, also worked closely with vocational tutors from a range of subjects including catering, industrial cleaning and joinery to ensure their views, feedback and attitudes towards the research could be accurately captured.

Initially, there were plans for more English tutors to be involved in the project, trialling activities using vocational topics and resources in their lessons to encourage greater collaboration between departments.


The approach to this project took the form of four main strands. Firstly, learners from the general vocational cohort were interviewed to establish their competence, comfort and opinions about the importance and relevance of English to their past and current life experiences. These took place over in-cell telephones which allowed learners space and privacy to be honest in their answers.

Data from the interviews (which showed a group of learners who generally appreciated the relevance of English skills to their lives inside and outside of prison) was then used to inform the planning of English teaching activities which were conducted in the joinery workshop towards the end of lessons. These included spelling words relevant to the joinery qualification (taken from workbooks) and texts a joiner might use at work (e.g., risk assessments). Learner reflections were captured to record what they had learned and how they felt about the activities. The tutor also reflected on each activity.

In addition to teaching activities, detailed explorations of joinery learners’ previous experience of English learning took place including at school, prison and elsewhere, how they would prefer to be taught, what has worked well in the past and what they would like to try in the future. Interviews were conducted with a range of learners including those who were less receptive to the changes in learning trialled by the project. Learners with contrasting views and experiences were selected to examine effective ways of teaching English to vocational learners.

Discussions were held with vocational tutors to find out their attitudes towards and confidence with English teaching and their opinions on the impact of CPD related to the research. This was to ensure any developments in teaching activities would be sustainable and easy to maintain in future.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The impact of this project on teaching, learning and assessment can be seen in many ways. The first is improved relationships between vocational trainers and English teachers. Previously, the departments were noticeably separate both physically and collaboratively. Vocational trainers have been able to feel safe communicating their feelings toward English teaching: ‘I don’t think it would be fair on me or the learner to teach them something I’m not confident in myself’ [Appendix 7].

This has enabled bespoke CPD intended to improve confidence and adaptations to lesson scheduling to allow better use of available teaching time. It is now normal for vocational trainers to discuss their planning with English tutors to check that English has been included effectively. This has led to a greater focus on embedding English in vocational training and increased knowledge about it. There is now a bank of English resources for tutors and trainers to use that are directly related to the vocational subjects being taught. They include the use and spelling of technical vocabulary and exploration of texts that are used when working within the industries the learners are getting their qualification for [Appendix 8].

There is also now a much better understanding of vocational learners’ capabilities and attitudes towards English. There was a general assumption that learners chose vocational subjects because they were no good at or had no interest in learning English skills. While this may be true for some learners, the majority of those interviewed could clearly and articulately explain how English was relevant to their lives and how they used it before and while being in prison [Appendix 3]. Even if they said they preferred vocational subjects to English learning, and did not want to study it further, they could appreciate its importance. The learner contributing to Case Study Two who did not want to learn English said: ‘You use it for everything, don’t you? Even though you don’t realise it, you are.’ [Appendix 6]. This challenged vocational tutors’ statements such as ‘they would disengage’ or ‘I don’t think they would be bothered’ [Appendix 7] and led to the implementation of English drop-in sessions for vocational leaners who express a wish for this or who need to learn specifically identified skills.

Organisational Development

The main organisational change has been the development of English teaching alongside vocational training. Previously vocational trainers were expected to teach English to address mistakes made by learners, without being given appropriate training to do so. Vocational trainers now have a range of trialled resources to use and have been empowered to develop their own activities which teach English and vocational topics in parallel should this suit their cohort of learners [Appendix 8]. This was a result of listening to learners, vocational trainers and English tutors. Contributions to the development of English teaching were not limited to English tutors themselves: ‘I have put together some theory lessons that are based on my Level 1 course that will include them doing written work.’ [Appendix 6]. The professional standard of the building of positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners was seen frequently throughout, with learners and vocational trainers giving insights that would not have been obvious to an English tutor planning alone [Appendix 4]. New perspectives were gained through detailed interviews with learners who had contrasting viewpoints [Appendices 1 and 6]. These led to the decision to set up English drop-in sessions for learners who want them or those identified by vocational trainers as needing to work on specific skills. These will be conducted by English teachers to cater for those learners who needed confidence in their tutor’s subject knowledge.

Learning from this project

Findings from this project can be seen to link to those of OTLA 6 where a focus on spelling within vocational prison workshops was explored. Common themes across both pieces of research include the ‘how learners benefit from breaking words into syllables when learning spelling’ and ‘how improving the confidence of vocational trainers really helps if they are required to teach aspects of English’. ‘Encouraging staff to try a different approach within their delivery, coupled with the introduction of a new concept, has led to their improved confidence and autonomy…’ (OTLA 6 Project 10d Novus, 2020).

By recording reflections and feedback from learners and vocational trainers, it was possible to develop resources directly linking to work, enabling them to participate more confidently: ‘It would need to be fun and interesting’ and ‘Integrate it more into joinery’ [Appendix 6]. Trainers have been supported to think carefully about their approach to English and are now equipped to develop English resources to use alongside vocational teaching where appropriate. ‘I asked the learners about [my English resources] and the majority would be keen to do them, so I would be confident in delivering it that way.’ [Appendix 7]. This ensured the sustainability of learning from the project in conjunction with learner drop-in sessions.
This research would have been even better if its scope had not been restricted by physical limitations caused by environmental issues and Covid outbreaks which caused workshops and catering to be closed for many months. Despite gaining useful insights from activities that were trialled, more data could have been gathered if these were started sooner.

However, as this change in direction led to detailed insights from learner interviews, it is possible that the information seen in the case studies might not have been gained otherwise.

This project challenged the assumption that vocational learners have little appreciation of the relevance of English. Even the least receptive of learners could articulate the importance of using English for work and daily life. It highlighted the need for tutors to contextualise the teaching of English to maximise its meaning, impact and use for the learner and for vocational trainers to have tools to teach English (if they need them) in addition to the tools of their trade.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners

    By trialling English resources and capturing reflections from learners, the vocational department is now able to extend opportunities for those who have previously thought that ‘academic’ subjects were ‘not for them’. The reflections given were sometimes bluntly honest which encouraged in-depth thinking around what might work better. It was then possible to teach English in different ways to meet the needs of more learners. Working with and adapting teaching approaches for those with ADHD and other neurodiversities gave tutors a greater insight into how to support English for a wider range of learners.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    Our project provided time and space for us to come together as a teaching team to challenge our assumptions about how learners deconstruct and build words. By engaging in research activity that asked for learners’ perspectives, we were able to appreciate that through understanding learners existing spelling strategies, and building on these, greater progress was made than when we started from a position of learners as spelling novices.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    Discussion of the success and failure of teaching activities often took place between the vocational trainer and the English tutor. As a result of these discussions, it was possible to focus on details of the activities which posed particular challenges (e.g. the spelling of word endings) and how these could be addressed. The vocational tutor was often able to capture more detailed feedback in conversation with learners which led to changes in the delivery of future activities.

  • 20. Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others.

    Links and working relationships between vocational and English departments have now been strengthened through discussion about and the gathering of ideas from tutors/trainers from a range of areas. There is a renewed focus on the embedding of English in vocational teaching and drop-in sessions for learners have been planned for vocational workshops.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Initial attitudes to English learning

Appendix 4: Learner Reflections on Activities

Appendix 5: Tutor’s Reflections on Activities

Appendix 6: Joinery Learners’ Interview Responses

Appendix 7: Trainer Discussions

Appendix 8: Resource Padlet


Claire Collins Consultancy (2022) Empowering Vocational Tutors to Develop a Phonics-Based Approach to Functional English [online] Available at: Accessed: 14.03.2022.