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Inmates at female jail get to learn oral English

    Shanghai Women’s Prison, which prides itself on preparing inmates for life after jail, instituted an oral English class six months ago — a first in the city.

    The course is aimed at increasing the job skills of female prisoners to help them integrate back into society after release.

    A total of 16 inmates have just completed the first semester of the course, which was designed by Li Tianqi, a lecturer from Shanghai Normal University.

    “I applied task-based language teaching to the course,” said Li. “It is a method that focuses on practical daily use of a language. Much of the curriculum was put into practice during games periods.”

    Li and her team also designed a virtual community to allow those beyond the maximum 20-member class size to participate. In a role-playing exercise inmates are asked to play whoever they want to be.

    “By playing games and simulating real life, the class aims to provoke thinking and individual ideas,” said Li. “That’s a good way for these women to learn the language effectively.”

    Shanghai Daily talked with several inmates. Their names have been altered to protect their privacy.

    An inmate named Emily took one of the 20 places available for the course. She was incarcerated after committing a robbery in 2012 and assigned to the prison’s sixth ward, where foreign criminals are mostly housed.

    26 letters

    “I was trying to communicate with them, but I could not even recognize the 26 letters of the English alphabet,” Emily said. “When I heard the English lessons would be started, I immediately applied.”

    Emily told Shanghai Daily with obvious pride that she was recently able to understand more than half of an article written by a foreign fellow inmate.

    “Six months ago, I was illiterate, and now I can even read some poetry,” she said.

    Low esteem is a common problem among inmates, said prison officials. Many worry about life after they get out and are afraid of what awaits them.

    “If you remove their criminal backgrounds, these are just ordinary women who are concerned about families and loved ones,” said the prison warden. “We want them to atone for their crimes, but we also want them to be able to resume responsible lives afterward.”

    The prison, founded in 1995, holds most of the city’s convicted female criminals.