Jackie Hewitt MainJackie Hewitt Main outside Chelmsford PrisonSal McKeown on a project bringing literacy where it's most needed – in jail
Swedish literacy software Lexion is playing a large part in an innovative prison education project. The software has been used to assess prisoners in Chelmsford prison and to provide them with a series of carefully graduated activities to help improve their basic skills.

Frank, aged 67, has spent much of his life in prison but for the first time he is able to send letters home and, more important, he can read the replies. These achievements are recognised in a new report, Dyslexia Behind Bars.

The project, also called Dyslexia Behind Bars, was led by Jackie Hewitt Main (pictured above), whose story began when her son was left with head injuries and behavioural problems after a car accident. She started trying to teach him at home and discovered the teachings of Samuel Orton, an American doctor and an early advocate of multisensory teaching methods who worked with people with learning disabilities or who had suffered a stroke.

Jackie had always struggled at school but as her son started to make progress she decided to go to college to get some IT qualifications. She found that although she was very good vocally, she could not express herself well on paper. A sympathetic tutor arranged an assessment and Jackie discovered she was dyslexic. So she started to explore the work of Orton for herself and found that kinaesthetic methods had a real impact .

Dyslexia Behind BarsShe went on to work on the pilot project in Chelmsford prison, familiar to most people as the setting for the TV series Porridge. Jackie surveyed 2,029 prisoners and found that 53 per cent had dyslexia compared to roughly 10 per cent in the wider UK population, and 21 per cent had suffered head injuries compared to just 2 per cent outside.

Jackie put together a whole range of different ideas for the inmates to identify what techniques would help them. These included writing words on the mirror in toothpaste or soap to reinforce spelling and using neurolinguistic programming techniques.. Using Jackie's approach, Frank, who suffered head injuries from boxing bouts in his early years and suffered memory problems, learned his alphabet in two days.

Prisoners often see education staff as 'do-gooders' and out of touch with their problems, and one of the keys to Jackie's success is that she has trained prisoners to be mentors. Education is only available for a part of the week but, as mentors, prisoners can support each other at any time, from the moment a prisoner arrives on the wing for the first time, through working on reading to helping one another with the Construction Skills Certificate.

Screening for dyslexia can be very time consuming and, with large numbers to deal with, at one stage Jackie had queues of men lining up on the wing to be tested. She was aware Lexion offered both assessment and training with almost a hundred modules covering everything from phonological awareness to syllable processing, and spatial relationships. So she contacted Annika Boreson Hallsvik, the Lexion project leader.  

After some negotiation Lexion was tailored to meet the needs of adult male prisoners. "I was most impressed with how Jackie had managed to implement Lexion and trained the mentors in using the program," says Annika. "I must say that is quite an achievement as the Lexion program is most comprehensive."

Basic skills are essential, and without them ex-offenders are unlikely to find work and may well drift back into a life of crime. Four of Jackie’s learners had each been in jail for 40 years or longer, but four years after being released they have stayed out of trouble. It seems that their increasing confidence and skills have enabled them to make more successful lives on the outside.  

Dyslexia Behind Bars: Final Report of a Pioneering Teaching and Mentoring Project at Chelmsford Prison – 4 Years On, by Jackie Hewitt-Main (Paperback, £10 from Amazon)   
Lexion software is being used in many schools now for learners with dyslexia and aphasia 

Sally McKeownSal McKeown is a freelance journalist. Her book, How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child, is published by Crimson Publishing

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