Thursday 1st March, 2007

Leela Ramdeen
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Promoting literacy in T&T

  • Importance of literacy.
  • Development of the whole per-son.
  • National reading policy.
  • Volunteers needed as tutors and mentors.

Proficiency in the various aspects of literacy is critical if our citizens are to achieve their potential, if T&T is to achieve developed nation status. As Unesco states, “Literacy empowers and nurtures inclusive societies and contributes to the fair implementation of human rights.”

According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics (Literacy Assessment, April 2006), worldwide, 781 million adults are illiterate and about 100 million children are out of school.

Recently I went to Alabama in the US to appear on EWTN Live—a TV programme produced by Eternal Word Television Network. EWTN broadcasts 24-hour Catholic-themed programming to 118 million homes in 127 countries and 16 territories on cable, satellite, and low-power TV.

Fr Leonard Alfonso from Barbados was also a guest on the programme which focused on pro-life issues in the Caribbean. We were sponsored by Human Life International.

At the end of the live call-in programme we were surrounded by members of the audience and many commented on our fluency in English. It reminded me of my early days in the UK when similar comments were made to me. Yes, English is my mother-tongue!

The development of literacy is not something that society should leave to chance—to be imbibed through some form of osmosis from listening and speaking to others in one’s environment. Children learn language by being in an environment that “calls forth language.” My parents and teachers played a major role in the development of my literacy skills.

This month is the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples). As Fr Thomas Williams says, the Pope rightly taught that the Christian idea of progress is not merely material or technological. It necessarily embraces the whole human person in his social, moral, cultural and spiritual dimensions as well. Paul VI wrote:

The development we speak of here cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man.”

In this encyclical Pope Paul VI refers to illiterate people as “starved spirits.” How are we advancing as a nation? Are we developing effective strategies to develop the whole person—each man, woman and child? How many “starved spirits” roam our streets in T&T? How many are simply functionally literate with basic skills of reading and writing.

Fr Williams states that if a society doesn’t advance in goodness, in justice and in love, it doesn’t truly advance. Lent is a good time for us to reflect on the truth of these words. Is it just” that many of our people remain illiterate and cut off from so much that life has to offer?

I don’t think we have accurate statistics in T&T. This is an issue with which many countries are grappling. The National Literacy Act (US) defines literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

Information from the National Institute for Literacy in the US states that “more than 20 per cent of adults in the USA read at or below a fifth grade level—far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The National Adult Literacy Survey found that over 40 million Americans, age 16 and older, have significant literacy needs.”

Since T&T’s Ministry of Education has designated 2007 as the National Year of Literacy, I was pleased to read that British Gas T&T is supporting the work of this ministry by sponsoring 85,000 books—from the series Get Caught Reading—to our primary schools.

However, we all know that providing books to schools is not all that is needed to promote literacy. Inter alia, we need to develop the ability of our teachers to teach all aspects of literacy. Each teacher is a teacher of language/literacy.

I note that the ministry is in the process of formulating a national reading policy and will be expanding implementation of the Centre of Excellence for Teacher Training (Cett) literacy model. A progress report on Cett is available on the Education Discussion Group’s Web site:

The expansion of Cett is critical as some of our teachers do not possess the necessary skills to promote literacy.

When I led a team of teachers in London to promote success among students of Caribbean origin, my team and I worked with schools to develop well-designed literacy programmes which provided students with frequent opportunities to use language, eg reading, writing, listening and speaking—for varied purposes.

A national reading policy is essential if we are to make progress. While recognising that there may be different views where this is concerned, eg reading pedagogy, reading achievement levels, national reading standards and performance indicators, it is important that all stakeholders contribute to shaping this policy.

I am sure that such a policy will take into consideration the tools that technology offers for effective literacy instruction. The International Reading Association’s position statement on literacy and technology (2001) explains:

To become fully literate in today’s world, students must become proficient in the new literacies of information and communication technologies. Therefore, literacy educators have a responsibility to effectively integrate these technologies into the literacy curriculum.”

Although there are numerous examples of individuals who have achieved great heights in spite of their poor background, illiteracy of their parents etc, research has shown that by assisting illiterate/semi-illiterate adults/parents improve their basic literacy skills, one can improve the education and quality of life of their children. Illiteracy negatively impacts on many areas of an individual’s life, eg health, employment, welfare, financial status.

Many children drop out of school or do not attend school regularly. We must do more to promote literacy in communities.

The Community Information Literacy Project which has recently been launched at the Tunapuna Public Library is to be welcomed. I hope that this project, which is run by Nalis with the support of Unesco, will expand to include other libraries. Let’s invest in our people.

I commend groups such as the Adult Literacy Tutors Association of T&T (ALTA) (tel: 624 2582) for their commitment to improve literacy. I urge citizens to offer their services to groups such as ALTA. Volunteers are always needed.

During the lenten season, commit yourself to plough back into society some of the expertise that God has give you. Become a tutor or a mentor.

Members of the business community often complain that low literacy is adversely affecting their productivity and profitability. The business community, Rotary and Lions Clubs etc should sponsor more outreach programmes and run literacy programmes for their own workers and their families. Family literacy programmes can be very effective.

Let us raise the level of literacy in T&T to enable citizens to participate fully in all aspects of society and to build our nation/world.

Leela Ramdeen is a lawyer

and education consultant



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