A grandmother-of-seven can finally fill in forms without her daughter's help, thanks to a volunteer literacy programme at the Auckland women's prison.

The 50-year-old, who left school at 14 and had her first child at 16, was presented with her literacy certificate today by the head of the United Nations Development Programme, former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

As two of her grandchildren clutched at her legs, their nana said she was motivated to learn so that she could help them with their homework when she becomes due for release in September.

"I didn't go to school much," she said. "I had good parents, I think it was just me, I didn't want to listen."

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Her husband who has been with her since she was 14, her daughter, son-in-law and three of her grandchildren were at the prison to hear her thank them and her volunteer tutor Julie France, 70, who spent two hours with her in one-on-one sessions for 12 weeks.

"When I was younger and married, I didn't know how to fill out forms. I had to get my daughter to fill out forms and tell me what do they mean," she said.

"I only had a learner's licence, I never had my restricted because I didn't know how to read. Now I'm doing my restricted."

She grew up in Auckland and knew little about her Ngapuhi heritage, but she wanted to learn about it now that her youngest grandchildren are in a kohanga reo. Although Mrs France is Pakeha, she was willing to help and used the flexible one-on-one format to do it.

"We studied Dame Whina Cooper and you had to find out how to do your mihi and pepeha," she told her star pupil.

"[Her pupil] helped me with the pronunciation and I helped her with information. She had basic literacy, but she had avoided reading because it was hard, and once I introduced her to things that she was interested in, she was motivated to start reading. In eight weeks, she jumped four years in reading age."

Mrs France is one of just 13 volunteers from the Howard League for Penal Reform at the 400-bed women's prison. The Corrections Department's regional volunteer coordinator Olivia McCarthy said hundreds more volunteer tutors were needed for both women's and men's prisons.

"Seventy per cent of prisoners have some form of literacy issue," she said.

Howard League administrator Liz Street said the biggest need was for volunteers in South Auckland for the new men's prison which opened at Wiri last month and for the Spring Hill prison near Te Kauwhata.