Computer-Assisted Literacy Education Serves as Intervention for Incarcerated Women

By Gannon, Marcia; Lapham, Michele | Corrections Today, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Computer-Assisted Literacy Education Serves as Intervention for Incarcerated Women


Gannon, Marcia, Lapham, Michele, Corrections Today


According to a 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 42 percent of female inmates had neither a high school diploma nor General Education Development (GED) credentials at the time they were incarcerated. The lack of basic educational credentials causes difficulties in finding gainful employment upon release, and along with disrupted family ties before or due to an individual's incarceration, raises the likelihood of recidivism. Since educational programs have been cited in multiple studies as a significant factor in reducing recidivism, the majority of correctional facilities now offer educational programs to inmates as part of their efforts to promote successful reintegration into society.

Literacy education is often the first step for inmates since many of them lack the reading skills needed to study for, or to take, the GED test. In fact, in a National Adult Literacy Survey conducted in 1992, seven out of 10 inmates scored at the lowest levels for literacy. Additionally, authorities estimate that 30 to 50 percent of inmates have learning disabilities, compared with three to 15 percent of the general population. (1)

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Many female offenders receive short sentences (often about four years), so for them, instruction within a correctional facility has to be effective within a brief period of time. However, teachers face a number of obstacles that could cause inmates to give up on correctional education or avoid the programs altogether. Many incarcerated women have had prior negative school experiences, some are English language learners, and others are contending with learning disabilities or brain injuries. Because of previous struggles, many of those individuals have the belief that they are "not smart enough" to become literate. In addition, many female inmates have experienced ordeals that have resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, causing them to easily slip into "fight or flight" mode, which has enormous potential for disrupting learning.

Overcoming inmates' learning disabilities or traumas requires differentiated instruction and one-on-one attention. Effective literacy software removes typical time constraints of inmates by enabling a digital teacher to provide individualized instruction on phonemic awareness, grammar, comprehension and other skills to several students at once. The time factor is even more enhanced with software that is designed to diagnose each student's weaknesses and automatically prescribe the lessons necessary for addressing specific deficiencies in reading and language skills, thereby providing swift, impartial and accurate intervention. Students with higher level reading skills can also use programs to improve reading fluency (the ability to read text quickly and grasp its meaning) or to work on grammatical knowledge that they may have missed in regular educational institutions.

One practical benefit of literacy programs is increasing students' reading speeds so that they are able to complete the GED. The authors agree that 200-300 words per minute is a satisfactory rate for passing the GED.

In 2008, the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham developed a reading lab curriculum that included two literacy software programs. First, the facility piloted a phonics-based program, My Reading Coach (MRC), to determine if the vendor's claims about improvements in literacy skills could be substantiated. Developed by reading specialists and speech pathologists, and based on cognitive learning theory, the software uses a virtual teaching assistant for one-on-one instruction. Twelve students worked on the literacy software for varying amounts of time while participating in other classes, and the changes in their literacy skills were corroborated by pre-and post-tests on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) evaluations.

While students in the pilot only worked on the software for four to six months, the gains in learning were definitive enough for the superintendent to purchase eight workstations with the program. …

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