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Against the odds

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The odds are firmly against learning to read as an adult. Rather than diminishing, the obstacles to literacy are often compounded by age, the responsibilities of adulthood and experience of school failure. 


To beat the odds and create readers and writers of those who have left their school days long behind, an adult literacy programme must tackle the hurdles to literacy one by one. 


Hurdle 1: Fear that I cannot learn to read and write


The oft-quoted Caribbean literacy rates of over 90 per cent are in fact the rate of enrolment in primary school, the assumption being that access to primary education equals literacy. 


It is safe to say then that most Caribbean adult non-readers have attended primary school and already given literacy a try, maybe even what they consider their best shot. Past failure makes us all hesitant to try again, and when that experience comes with judgements that you are stupid and “cyar learn”, the biggest hurdle is to believe that you can learn to read and write. Students have said to me, “Plenty people try with me already you know.” and “My head real hard.” This first hurdle stops many from even starting. 


The first task of an adult literacy programme is to give the student success, since telling them “You can do it” will not erase decades of being told the opposite. They have to feel the success for themselves. 


The key is to assess the student and start them where they know enough so they feel they can cope. In an ideal world, each student could have an individual education plan, but the only practical option is to create levels, which of necessity will encompass students with a range of skills—from those nearer the lower level to those who almost made it into the level above. 


Alta has four levels: Beginner, Level 1, 2 and 3. While there is more to distinguish the levels, this is a rough guide: Beginners do not recognise even all the letters of the alphabet; Level 1s do not recognise many common words nor link all letters to their individual sounds; Level 2s read but slowly missing out or guessing words in everyday text hindering comprehension; Level 3s recognise most words but want to improve comprehension and writing skills often with a view to passing CXC subjects. 


The second critical factor is one-on-one support so the student is never left struggling. Once the task overwhelms, brain freeze looms. Brain freeze reinforces “I can’t” so timely intervention is a must. 


Alta provides individual support in two ways—first through an 8:1 student-tutor ratio to allow the tutor to work directly with individuals or pairs of students. The Alta tutor spends 80 per cent or more of class time moving around the room to give help where needed, vigilant to avert brain freeze and offering help to those who would not venture to ask for this. 


How help is offered is just as important as the offer of help. Help does not mean doing the task for the student or providing the answer. That does not engender an “I can” feeling—in fact reinforces the “I can’t.” The Alta approach is to use questions to guide the student to discover what is to be learnt or to apply previous learning. The tutor’s questions provide clues to move thinking in the right direction and towards the answer. The question also picks up on how the student is thinking—it “responds to the response” (Dr Tim Conway). 


The good teacher is master of the art of questioning, a far more demanding skill than telling, as the teacher must know the answer themselves and also understand how they arrived at that knowing. The questions should give just enough to stimulate thought. This trains the thinking process to arrive at “I can.” 


(First published in 20 Years of Alta magazine, 2012)


Alta is looking for volunteers for the 2013/2014 academic year. Become an Alta volunteer tutor, a Reading Circle guide or assist students with the Reading Companion software on the computer. Volunteers are unpaid. Call 624-ALTA (2582) or e-mail [email protected] to set up an interview.


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