After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work

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  • Viewpoints and controversies

    After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work Bernard D u m o n t

    Never in the course of mankind's existence has so much been done for literacy as nowadays. Yet because of the rapid increase in the world's population the number of illiterate adults is constantly increasing, and is higher today than ever before. As a result, some think, with good reason, that more ought to be done; if their studies and exhortations bear fruit, the record figures reached over the last ten years will be exceeded: each year tens of millions of human beings, including millions of adults, will learn to read and write.

    Then what? What purpose is served by the efforts of those who learn to read,

    write and count, and of those who organize and teach? What do they lead to? Literacy teaching, as is often said, opens the doors of know- ledge; but what knowledge? What does such knowledge lead to?

    If all literary teaching were Cfunctional', we should not need to ask such questions: for if literacy teaching is functional the knowledge acquired through training is closely connected with the activities and concerns that mean most to the learner in daily life; as functional knowledge is thus put into practice every day, it is kept up and develops constantly and steadily; at least, we hope so.

    But in fact, sometimes because the notion of functional literacy teaching is misunderstood, or, more frequently, because the material or human resources mobilized are insufficient, the various literacy programmes carried out are not always functional, or are not really SO.

    This is true of both children taught in schools, and adults who take literacy courses; but the problems that arise in each of these two age groups differ so much that they need to be examined separately. Many psycho-pedagogical and socio-economic studies of the children's problems have been made, but not of the problems which arise at the

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    Prospects, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1979

  • Bernard Dumont

    conclusion of adult literacy programmes, perhaps because post- literacy work has often been thought a simple affair. In this article, therefore, we shall look at some of these problems, from the practical standpoint of a person responsible for a literacy programme, or of anybody who wants to play his part in the effort to eradicate illiteracy.

    First we shall consider what exactly post-literacy work is and try to show the discrepancies between various aspects of the situation and between the true state of affairs and ideas that have been accepted or action that is to be or has been taken. Secondly, we shall also find numerous paradoxes when we consider the relations between literacy teaching and post-literacy work and try to see how to ensure that they succeed in overcoming illiteracy.

    A three-dimensional notion ,

    Post-literacy work can be defined as all those materials and structures which enable the newly literate adult to keep up, use and develop the knowledge he has acquired and the abilities generated in him through literacy teaching.

    L E N G T H : THE M A T E R I A L

    A glance at this definition shows us the first dimension of post- literacy work, a dimension that is a logical and chronological direct consequence of literacy teaching. It is now known that an adult who has learnt to read, write and count needs special material--'reading material for the newly literate adult ' -- if he is not to fall back into illiteracy. This material comprises: Informative material, generally in pamphlet form, the content

    and presentation of which are specially designed to give practical information that will help him to improve his working and living conditions (agriculture, stock-breeding, technology, hygiene, bringing-up of children, civic life) and also to serve as a transition between the ABCs and Cfirst readers' used when people are learning to write and the reading material of various kinds produced for the general public; such informative material is an essential stage on the road to adult education proper. :

    Periodicals, either rural newspapers or news-sheets published by firms, which are distributed to the newly literate, or easy-to-read insets or pages in the ordinary press.

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  • After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work

    Books of all types, informative or fictional, with or without illus- trations, picture stories and strip cartoons, which enable people to acquire the habit of reading.

    Various widely distributed materials (posters, calendars, pamphlets and brochures), from all of which something can be learnt, and which can be used in conjunction with other information media (radio, films, television), during campaigns intended to reach large numbers of people and dealing with subjects of general interest: food hygiene, how to combat certain illnesses and so on.

    Certain conditions, both qualitative (variety, regularity) and quanti- tative, must be met in the production of such reading material for newly literate people if it is to be really effective. Careful planning is necessary to ensure that the considerable resources required for its production are available when required: pedagogical research, finding authors and encouraging them, seeing that equipment and materials are provided. It may not be realized that in certain countries with extremely high levels of illiteracy, the consumption--and in the present state of the economy that means imports--of paper may be tripled in five years as a result of normal post-literacy work. But in most cases the greatest difficulty lies in the organization of publishing and distribution channels (libraries and bookshops), for most of those that already exist are unsuited to the requirements of post-literacy work.

    These are all serious diificulties, but they are largely the same as those encountered during literacy programmes and are but an exten- sion of them. As a result, the teams in charge of literacy programmes are usually quite capable of handling the situation: as long as they have the resources, they can easily find extensive bibliographies and in their turn produce valuable information through which the methods used in their work and its results can be disseminated.

    W I D T H : THE E N V I R O N M E N T

    When we try to add a second dimension to the idea of post-literacy work, to widen the concept, and to get the newly literate adult off the beaten track along which he has been led by the reading materials prepared for him by the literacy programme staff, we find a very different state of affairs. For if the purpose of literacy programmes really is to 'demarginalize' the illiterate adult, as we are so often told, the latter should one day reach the stage where, in his own environ- ment, he is on an equal footing with those who are not considered as

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  • Bernard Dumont

    marginal, i.e. those who have taken and completed a school course. Here other paradoxes begin to appear: taking mankind as a whole,

    almost a third of adults are regarded as marginal because they are illiterate, and if present trends continue there will still be a quarter in 199o. The critical evaluation report of the Experimental World Literacy Programme 1 points out that about 8o or 9o per cent of adults in some countries are said to be marginal because they can neither read nor write; what, then, of the rural areas in these same countries, where the written word has no place whatever, and never has had, in any aspect of life--the life of the family, the economy, culture, health, even administration, if one can use such a term in this context.

    In these areas, which make up the larger part of the countries hav- ing the highest rates of illiteracy, and where literacy programmes have been introduced as an accompaniment to economic changes, the effectiveness of a post-literacy programme depends not only on the quantity and quality of reading material made available to newly literate persons, but also on action--vigorous, effective action--to make the environment favourable to the general use of written communication, more rapidly than if it were to come about naturally.

    Studies and, indeed, experiments on a scale that compels attention have been carried out in some of the many fields in which it is possible to contribute to the creation of an environment that is favourable to literacy programmes, for example, on the organization of rural libraries in the United Republic of Tanzania and the participation of adults in the production of their own reading material, described by Simoni Malya. ~ But many other fields have not yet been sufficiently or properly investigated. Something more should be said of at least three of these: the presence of the printed word, the radical reorganiz- ation of training programmes, and the status of the languages used for literacy teaching.

    It is difficult for anyone who lives and works in towns, where there are signboards, posters and advertisements on all sides, to imagine the almost total absence of the printed word in very large rural areas of countries which have an oral civilization--areas where the majority of illiterate adults live. Any attempt at literacy teaching will have little impact in such places, unless the people can apply in practice, nat- urally and as it were subconsciously, the knowledge of writing and arithmetic that they have acquired. The visible context of the people's life must be changed--signposts must be put up on roads and street names indicated in towns or villages--so that there is more evidence

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  • After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work

    to show the adult, and for that matter the child, that the written word is a normal part of relations between people, as well as material for individual reflection. Moreover, if the written word is used in this way widely enough, the newly literate person will feel at home among familiar signs, when he is away from the context--necessarily a restricted one- -of the verbal relations he has had.

    It is generally held that one of the functions of post-literacy teaching is to give adults a chance to reach a higher level of know- ledge. However, the arrangements made to enable them to do so have long consisted of the provision of special classes as a transition towards the normal forms of education--existing school or univer- sity institutions. Until very recently, many 'evening classes' in various African countries were of this kind-- the lessons intended for schoolchildren were merely repeated for adults. Similarly, the 'social advancement courses' provided in France, were usually mere rep- etitions for adults of those used for technical college students in the daytime.

    Behind these practices l ie--more or less explicitly--not only the force of habit and fear of innovation, but also the conviction that the school system is an excellent means of individual or collective advancement. True, at certain times and in certain contexts some of those who started to attend school when they were very young have done well because of it; how often have we heard somebody of import- ance in the world of education or elsewhere refer to his humble origins as a country boy, and say what great things the school did for himl But, apart from the fact that people have quite different opportunities, because of the rapidity with which changes take place, these argu- ments do not alter the fact that there are at least two reasons why school programmes and courses should not be used for adults with- out adaptation. First, in the planning and organization of school Pr0grammes the rate of progress is based on the stages o f average development of a child's personality, whereas adults have already passed through these stages--in a different way, it is true, but they have done so; second, school programmes and the methods generally used in them are such that there is little opportunity to take account of an adult's experience of life or turn it to advantage.

    Therefore, i f a post-literacy programme is really to give adults the same opportunities for a full life as people who have had a school education, different arrangements must be made for their training, or else existing systems must be radically changed, so as to cater for the particular situations and needs of the various age groups.

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  • Bernard Dumont

    This is being done in the United Republic of Tanzania: in the Folk's Development Colleges the programmes are specially designed for both the new literate and people who have had a school education, local employment needs and opportunities being taken into account. Likewise, in Mall, the Cfurther training' courses with a scientific bias, which are intended for the inhabitants of a village or group ofviUages, provide an opportunity for people who have had a school education, those who are newly literate and even some illiterate people to obtain reliable scientific information about the problems of daily life.

    The effectiveness of post-literacy work should not be impaired by the choice of the language to be used in literacy programmes. Only in rare cases is this both the language spoken by people in their families, the language most commonly spoken, and the official language of the country, with a fixed written form and a substantial body of published and available literature. The various combinations of these language functions can lead to many and very different situations.

    One of these situations, which has become increasingly common in certain African countries over the last ten years, is characterized by the adoption, for psycho-pedagogical and economic reasons, of the language most widely used in society, as the language in which literacy teaching is given. Sometimes the language people speak in their homes is used, but it will not be the official language, which is generally a foreign language used in the school system and adminis- trative life. A dichotomy is thus created between people taught in schools in an official language, who get salaried posts in the public or private sector, and adults who have taken literacy courses, usually country people who can read and write only in their native tongue. This dichotomy has many consequences.

    The most immediate of these, for our purposes, is the adult's reluctance to learn to read and write a language which is not that of the authorities and the well-off and which, in the system he accepts as a model, does not appear to lead to any real opportunity for advancement.

    This being so, the status of literacy programme languages must be clearly defined and constantly respected if post-literacy work is to be carried out successfully, q n the present circumstances,' said the Director-General of Unesco, on the occasion of the thirteenth Inter- national Literacy Day, 'literacy work often requires a twofold effort, since, to achieve its full effect, it must be applied to two languages, whose respective spheres of influence must be defined and whose coexistence...