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Getting worse to get better
Q: Mrs Lucie-Smith, how big a problem is adult literacy in Trinidad and Tobago?
A: (At her Circular Road, Belmont, office Tuesday afternoon) It is an issue that we don’t really recognise usually, and now it is being termed a problem which makes it feel as if it was never a problem before. What is making it an issue—I call it an issue not a problem—is that the world has changed and now there is the need to read and write in order to function in everyday life. We did our first national literacy survey in 1994-95 when we found about a quarter of the population had that issue to deal with.
Has any update been done on that survey?
No. But there is an interesting conversation happening now within Caricom which is looking at a new literacy tool called Lamp–Literacy Assessment Monitoring Programme, and the discussion is aimed at using Lamp in this region to find out what the real statistics are.
What other critical stats did you unearth in 1994?
We found out that one in every four persons—22-23 per cent of the population—had such minimal reading and writing ability that they would not be able to do their groceries, and they would not be able to full out a form past their name and address.
Doesn’t that fly in the face of our repeated boast, at least by officialdom, that we were a very literate society topping the 90 something per cent mark?
Definitely and that is why at the time when we put out the statistics they were pretty much not accepted and we were reminded that 90-95-98 per cent of the people were literate. But we have to look at where those figures came from.
Where did they come from?
They came from the schools where it was said we had places for 95 per cent of the population, so therefore 95 percent of the population were literate. (Cynical grin) Now we know that not only could you go to primary school but all the way up to secondary school and still not be literate.
This says something not only of the education system but it also says something about a person, which is that not everyone comes to school with the same set of tools. What we have is an education system that is very much designed for those who are good at language. We have an estimated 10-20 per cent of the population who are dyslectic; who would have problems with reading and writing.
Mrs Lucie-Smith, this literacy problem...sorry, issue, is it concentrated in any particular ethnic group or is it across the board?
It doesn’t have anything to do with that.
What about socio-economic?
It is across socio-economic levels but what you will find is if you have the means to send your child for specialised lessons if your child is dyslectic, then you can get over that with specialised teaching. If you don’t have the means to access specialised teaching and you are dependent on the school system very often your child would go through the entire system without it being picked up, because there is nothing in the school system to deal with it. You are effectively saying the school system does not cater for every child? It doesn’t, in the sense that those who come in and whose brains are not wired for reading and writing they are going to fall behind and that falling behind isn’t ever going to be addressed. What you really need is a specialised reading teacher in every school and it makes no sense going through the system and not learning how to read and write. We cannot over emphasise how important these skills are.
What age group do your classes cater to?
Sixteen and upward...we have people in their eighties celebrating their birthdays in our classrooms (a smile of satisfaction).
Who cannot read or write?
Reading and writing is all about levels and this is where statistics can be deceptive. If you look at how many people in Trinidad cannot read or write AT ALL; they cannot look at a letter in the alphabet and recognise it, they cannot recognise the word two. Our survey found it at eight percent, most of them are in the older generation who never went to school and would be residing in the rural areas.
Mrs Lucie-Smith, have you came across instances where somebody, let’s say over 60 years old, would feel embarrassed to join your classes?
(Gesticulating with hands outstretched) You hit the nail on the hea------d there, Clevon. What you would find is that literacy is clouded with the whole issue of shame. If you are an adult and you cannot read you want to keep that hidden; you don’t want it to be known. So that you would have people walking around with a pen in their shirt pocket like you are doing Clevon, to give the impression that they can use it, right? Or always buying a newspaper (laughs), walking with it...the only thing is they cannot read, right? You have a lot of covering strategies they go at, right? So what we have to work on is changing the perception that if you are an adult who cannot read it means you are stupid, which is definitely not the case. And that shame factor is a stronger factor for men than women who perhaps find it easier to say, “Oh gosh, I cannot do this well, give me some help.” Although they have been coming it is not easy for men to ask for help.
Well (shrugging her shoulders), you know, macho image...a male thing which perhaps says, “I am man and I suppose to do things for myself.” But recently we have seen more men coming in and I don’t know if this was caused by a recent television promotion we undertook.
Does ALTA have problems recruiting tutors?
All our tutors are voluntary and we always have difficulty in getting tutors for certain areas, Sangre Grande being number one. We could take 100 students in that area but we don’t have tutors. Siparia, Princes Town and Mayaro are difficult areas, too. One of the factors in this situation is that tutors do not always work in the areas where they live and classes take place in the evening, so you could imagine somebody working in Port-of-Spain leaving after 4 pm to get home in time to teach a class in Sangre Grande....impossible.
I gather you are having a 20th anniversary programme?
Yes, it starts this weekend with the showing of a movie produced by the BBC and the National Geographic Society called the “First Grader,” which is about an 84-year-old ex-Mau Mau fighter in Kenya, who took up in 2003, an offer by that country’s government of free primary schooling to anyone who wanted it. It will be first shown only to our students and tutors but we would look into the possibility of showing it to the wider community at a later date. We are hoping to publish a magazine and at our annual general meeting in October, we would be honouring several tutors who have rendered yeoman’s service over the years. And there would also be an impact study of our activities over the last ten years.
I take it that you do receive some kind of funding from the State?
(Voice drops) No.
So how do you carry this burden, and have you ever asked for financial assistance from the State?
We have in the past looked at partnering with the Government but you know State funding is always a double edge sword and you don’t want to get dependent on them. We get funding from some very appreciative firms in the private sector and individuals.
You are not starved for funds, then?
We are not really, but we are constantly asking ’round for financial assistance to keep us going and so far we have been doing a satisfactory job in that context.
Why did you say that State funding could be a two edge sword?
We are an NGO and I know of one particular such group who was receiving State support and demands were made that they do things in a certain way or the funding would be pulled. So you don’t want to be put in that situation.
You think they might seek to politicise your work at ALTA?
Quite possible, and I am never going to have ALTA out there to support any political party. You always feel that if you get something you might be asked to...
What, you don’t trust the politicians?
(A sharp retort) Does anybody in this country? (loud laughter). We have tried to remain politically neutral because adult literacy is a very sensitive topic and governments do not like it when we say the nation is not literate. So we generally have not been blessed with Government favour over the years. We have survived this fight with governments who wish that ALTA would just fade away. In fact Government programmes come and go but ALTA stays, and what I would like to see is a genuine partnership with the State.
You prefer that attempts to get at dyslexic children should start from Form One. With that in mind did the declaration of universal free secondary education 12 years ago contribute to this issue?
I think it contributed because if you didn’t get a place in secondary school, a percentage of those children would be placed in the post primary class at that time where there was a curriculum that students could cope with and you could still focus on reading, writing and maths. Now you are putting students you know cannot read into secondary school. In 2000 we were approached by the task force charged with making that transition and we proposed doing a programme during the Easter and August vacation to try to minimise the problems going into secondary school. But that was not done and there wasn’t a comprehensive plan for administering the new dispensation.
Finally Mrs Lucie-Smith, from where you sit do you see any ease up in this issue any time soon or would it get worse?
(A heavy sigh) Clevon, it will get worse before it gets better. We are living in an age where communication is in the written word. Before that communication was oral; you wanted a job you would go and talk to somebody about that. Now you have forms to fill out before you could even talk to somebody. The cell phone is text, the computer everything on the net has to be read. So put yourself in the position of the person who cannot read. How can they take part in the life that everybody else is involved in? The sad part is that the education system is not catering to these people.