Improving the quality of adult literacy programmes in developing countries: the `real literacies' approach

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  • Int. J. of Educational Development 19 (1999)

    Improving the quality of adult literacy programmes indeveloping countries: the real literacies approach

    Alan Rogers *School of Continuing Education, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK


    This paper looks at some of the characteristics of traditional adult literacy programmes in developing countries.Drawing on case studies in Asia and Africa, it outlines an experimental approach using texts found in local communitiesand chosen by the literacy participants rather than or as well as literacy primers, and indicates the underlying conceptson which this approach is based. It assesses some of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach and concludes thatin some circumstances, it is worthy of experimental use. The main problem is how to evaluate its success in achievingits goals. 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.


    1. Conversation in rural Bangladesh

    Interviewer: How long have youbeen the leader of thiswomens group?

    Woman: Seven years.

    Interviewer: And you cannot read orwrite?

    Woman: NoI have never beento school.

    Interviewer: When was the last timeyou wrote a letter?

    * Noel Close, 5 Adderley Street, Uppingham, Rutland LE159PP, UK. E-mail:

    0738-0593/99/$ - see front matter 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.PII: S 07 38 -0593( 99 )0 0015-2

    Woman: Ten days ago.

    Interviewer: What was that about?

    Woman: One of our membershad lost her ration card,and I had to write tothe zilla parishad (localcouncil) to get a newone for her.

    Interviewer: How did you write thatletter?

    Woman: My ten-year-old sonwrote it for me.

    (Rogers, 1988)This conversation, recorded in the field in Bang-

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    ladesh in 1988, is remarkable. It shows that awoman, categorised by aid agencies (and byherself) as being illiterate, is in fact quite nor-mally, and apparently regularly, engaging in liter-acy activities without any sense of disadvantage. Itchallenges traditional approaches to adult literacywhich see illiterates as persons signally disadvan-taged and unable to engage in developmentalactivities until they have mastered the skills ofreading and writing through a special programmeof adult literacy classes. Nor is this conversationunique: throughout the developing world, thou-sands of men and women are living their dailylives, engaging in literacy practices without havingthe skills of reading and writing, despite all theefforts of aid agencies to provide adult literacyclasses for them (Street, 1984; Hodge, 1997).

    2. Problems with adult literacy programmes

    It is widely agreed that existing models of adultliteracy programmes have failed to deliver whathas been claimed for them. Although, in somecases, impressive statistical results have beenobtained from special campaigns, as in Tanzaniaand Nicaragua, these have not always lasted, as thehigh figures of those classified (by various criteria)as being illiterate or semi-literate in these coun-tries show (Carr-Hill et al., 1991; Rogers, 1993).

    Two main problems may be identified as under-lying the causes of this failure of traditionalapproaches to teaching literacy skills to adults. Thefirst is the problem of motivating adults for par-ticipation in adult literacy learning programmes.To this end, vigorous efforts are made to exalt thevalue of literacy and the disadvantages of beingilliterate. Exaggerated (and in many cases clearlyfalse) promises about the socioeconomic benefitsof being literate are made to the participantswhat may be called the youll-never-be-cheatedapproach. Literacy is stressed as the key to devel-opment (a phrase which UNESCO has dissemi-nated widely throughout the developing world).Some practitioners have referred to a constantbattle to motivate adults and to keep them mot-ivated. To some extent, these efforts work; severalprogrammes have reported a good deal of success

    in this field. Adults do attend, sometimes in con-siderable numbers. But most programmes reportirregular attendance and very high drop-outratesa feature of existing programmes which hasbeen studied in various places (there is some dis-agreement as to whether these are drop-outs orwhether they are people who are pushed out bythe various constraints of the existing programmes,including the norms of participation which maybe imposed on the participants; Robinson-Pant,1997, p. 186).

    The stress that is laid on the socioeconomicbenefits of learning literacy skills by agencies con-cerned to motivate adults to participate in adult lit-eracy classes is however often mistaken. For itleads the participants to assume that they willbenefit directly from learning literacy skills in aclassroom setting. But in practice, the socioecon-omic benefits which arise from literacy do notspring from learning literacy skills, but from usingliteracy skills in real life to achieve real goals setby the participants (ODA, 1994). The aim of adultliteracy programmes, then, and the measure bywhich their success should be judged, should notbe the learning of literacy but the use of literacyskills. To give an example: if out of a class of 30literacy learners, 25 pass the test at the end of thecourse, but yet after 6 months, it is found that onlyfive of them are reading and writing in their dailylives, the success rate in this instance should surelybe only five, not 25, despite the test results.

    It is this emphasis on the value of learning ratherthan using literacy skills which accounts for thesecond main failure of these programmes, theirinability to help the participants to transfer the lit-eracy skills they learn in the classroom or literacycentre into use in their daily lives. The case of theNepali woman who said, I can read the primer(literacy textbook) but I cannot read anything else(Rogers, 1994) can be replicated in most countries.A recent study of those income-generation activi-ties which accompany adult literacy classes showsthis failure clearly. The participants rarely use liter-acy in these activities. For example, one group inKenya engaged in goat rearing said that they couldnot read the word goatbecause it is not in theprimer. This is typical of many such programmesin many countries: what is learned in the literacy

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    class is not normally used in the income-generationwork. There are a few projects which do make thistransfer. A womens group in Delhi, for instance,engaged in sewing advertising banners to hangacross the roads, are using their new literacy skillsto earn money. But these are rare (Rogers, 1994).The numbers of persons coming through adult lit-eracy learning programmes who can and do readfluently and with understanding regularly in theirdaily lives or who use writing and reading toadvance their daily activities, while not completelyinsignificant, are in fact small. A widely distributedpaper by Dr Helen Abadzi (1992) of the WorldBank has revealed something of the scale of thisfailure, although most commentators disagree withher diagnosis of the problem as lying in thepsychological characteristics of adult learners.

    Throughout the world, efforts are being made tofind new ways of developing more effective adultliteracy programmes (some are listed in a forth-coming report on post-literacy, DFID,forthcoming). New more relevant primers arebeing created. Better training programmes for liter-acy instructors (facilitators; animators; volunteerteachers or whatever term is used for thesepersons) are being devised, especially built onmore participatory approaches (Training for Trans-formation, 1984; Directorate of Adult Education,1985; PRIA, 1989). New programmes of post-lit-eracy to reinforce the skill learning already achi-eved are being created, for example in Kenya andIndia (Dumont, 1990; NLM, 1995; Thompson,1998). In Nepal, Save the Children (US) hasdeveloped a family post-literacy programme bywhich literacy learners in their classes are encour-aged to keep a diary of family events or a familyhealth record (freely and/or under certain headingswhich have been given to them) (Comings et al.,1992; Leve, 1993; Manandhar, 1993), and otheragencies are creating ways of helping participantsto transfer their new skills into their daily lives.But these are not activities which the participantsthemselves feel they need to keep up; they havebeen requested to do them by the literacy providingagencies, so they are rarely maintained for long.Completely new approaches are more rare:REFLECT which links Participatory RuralAppraisal (PRA, 1991) to adult literacy learning

    and community development activities at locallevel is one such new approach (Archer andCottingham, 1996). The World Bank has set up areview of new methods of developing more effec-tive approaches to adult literacy (World Bank,1998).

    This paper describes one such approach, whatwe have called the real literacies approach, whichseeks to make existing models of teaching literacyskills to adults more effective. The background tothe development of this approach is as follows.Between 1995 and 1998, Education for Develop-ment was invited by DFID to provide a series oftraining programmes for practitioners from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and govern-ment-organised adult literacy programmes in Ban-gladesh, and during 199798 these were openedto participants from Botswana and Namibia. Pre-course and follow-up visits were made to thesecountries to see the participants in their workplaces. Further, a series of training workshops wasprovided through the sponsorship of the BritishCouncil in West Africa for participants fromGhana, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria and othercountries, and other training events have been heldin Nepal and South Africa for field-level andmiddle-level adult literacy practitioners. It was dur-ing these activities that the real literacies approachhas been developed, and the approach is being usedin many of these countries (Education for Develop-ment, 1997-98). The paper sets out the justifi-cations for this approach, together with some ofthe issues and problems which accompany it.While not wishing to promote a new orthodoxy,it argues that this is one approach which literacy-providing agencies can experiment with in theirown local context.

    3. The real literacies approach

    The real literacies approach shares the samebasic principle as existing literacy programmes. Itseeks to help people to develop their skills of liter-acy, so that they can use these enhanced skills toundertake real literacy tasks in their daily lives inthe main spheres which surround themat work,in the home and/or in the communityand thus

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    improve the quality of life of themselves and theirfamily/community. But the starting point for thisapproach is very different from that of traditionaladult literacy learning programmes.

    3.1. Positive, not negative

    The real literacies approach does not start off bystressing the disadvantages of being illiterate, bysaying that non-literate persons cannot engage indevelopment until they have learned literacy skills.Nor does it exaggerate the benefits of learning toread and write skilfully. Instead, it starts by sayingthat every personwhatever their level of literacyskills, even entirely non-literate personsarealready engaged in literacy tasks and activities dur-ing the course of their lives. Clearly the nature ofsuch activities will vary; but the researches of sev-eral persons such as Professor Doronila and herteam in the Philippines (Doronila, 1996) haverevealed clearly that the level of these activitiesrelate to the cultural and economic activity of thewhole community, not to the level of skills of theindividual adult. In her case studies, all the mem-bers of the fishing communities and hill terrace far-mers had lower engagement with literacy tasksthan all the members of the urban slums she exam-ined. It had nothing to do with the personal skillsof individuals, everything to do with the context inwhich they lived.

    The real literacies approach then does not startwith the classroom but with what the participantsare already doing in their daily lives. It does notstart with a deficit model (what the participantslack, what they cannot do) but with a positive atti-tude towards the participants (what they arealready doing). Non-literate persons receive andwrite letters; they communicate with the schooltheir children attend, fill in essential forms,exchange money for goods and services, travel totown; they obtain ration cards, learn from electionposters and signs and other notices, understandsigns over buildings and symbols on variouslocations such as a hospital, watch people readingnewspapers and often access the information inthese papers; they scan advertisements and inspectpackages in the shops they visit or on the medi-

    cines they get (Heath, 1983; Barton, 1994a, b;Baynham, 1995).

    In dealing with these daily literacy experiences,they adopt their own strategies. Some get otherpersons to read and write for them. They accessand create letters or other forms of literacy throughthe agency of other persons (family, friends, neigh-bours, government workers etc). Some use visualclues. One woman in Delhi reported that she hadno problem catching her bus home from the marketshe visited; rather than ask for information, shewaited until she saw someone she knew getting onthe bus and therefore knew this was her bus(Rogers, 1976). They tie knots in string or makemarks on walls to keep records of transactions. (Itis widely assumed that illiterates cannot count,but there is a great deal of field evidence that theycan count and calculate: they may not be able todo school-type sums, but they calculate frequentlyand accurately, Rampal et al., 1998).

    For literacy is of course a part of a process ofcommunication. Communication consists of a mix-ture of oral, written and visual elements in differentproportions. All persons engaged in communi-cation use all of these different elements. Literatepersons use non-literate strategies (visual and oral).Goods are bought, not only by reading but more bytheir location in the shop, their size or packaging orshape or colour. Doors are opened because of signson them, not because of the words they carry. Evenso-called literate people often ask orally aboutbuses rather than read the complicated and smallprint of the bus timetable. We all use a range ofcommunication strategies (Street, 1998).

    The case study of the woman in Delhi who saidthat she chooses her bus by the sight of other per-sons can be used to explore this further. The buscompany wishes to communicate to its users thatthis bus will be going to certain places. It uses anumber and the name of one place on its sign-board; and those who ask other more knowledge-able persons or who consult the timetable or whoalready know from experienc...


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