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Literacy remains at an alarmingly low level in T&T, with underperforming students—especially males—continuously left behind who eventually either drop out of the school system or turn to crime. Experts tell us that those who do not drop out of school enter the workforce but do not perform as well as they could with a better education, reducing the country’s potential economic prowess. FABIAN PIERRE begins a T&T Guardian investigation into literacy in T&T, and what is being done to address those students at risk of fading into obscurity.
Children are not being loved, and this is one of the major contributors to low levels of literacy in T&T. Educational psychologist and social worker Dr Dorrell Philip spoke with the Guardian at her Woodbrook office during an investigation into statistics on national literacy.
The last two were done 20 years ago by the Adult Literacy and Tutors Association (ALTA) and the University of the West Indies in 1994 and 1995, respectively. They revealed that one in four people in T&T are unable to cope with everyday reading and writing. The surveys said 12.6 per cent of the population were unable to read or write while 8.7 per cent were functionally literate, meaning they could read and write but so little, that it hinders their everyday activities. The intermediate literacy level stood at 32.7 per cent, and described those who could cope with some everyday reading and writing but could not understand for example, some parts of the newspaper or simple directions on a medicine label.
Twenty years later, experts in this investigation tell the T&T Guardian that it doesn’t appear to be improving.
“People may call it airy-fairy business but children are not receiving love at home and at school and while people become offended or dismissive when you say it, when you test these children, as I have been doing over the years, the results confirm it,” Philip told the T&T Guardian.
She said children are under stress both at home and at school now more than ever and this gets in the way of their learning.
“Whether its from violence at home, or bullying at schools. You have the added issue of the teachers themselves,” she added, saying the students often suffer attacks from teachers who do not possess the skills to recognise a child may have a learning disability.
“I have a client whose child recorded a teacher dismissively telling those children who are underperforming that they are giving them the information, and it’s up to them if they want to learn it,” Philip said. “Which doesn’t help the child to learn anything: the child then blames him or herself and begins to close up, looking inward to guilt and shame, wondering what is wrong with them.”
She said it’s not just that there’s a shift in the behaviour of teachers that does not nurture children; there has also been a shift in the way children are being raised by their parents. This, Philip said, further compounds learning challenges.
“What is happening now is that children are being ‘cared for.’ We are not minding our children as we used to, we’re satisfying their basic needs and they are told to be quiet and be grateful for what they are given.”
Abuse, Philip said, is not as plain as hitting a child. “Words do hurt,” she said.
Pressures that affect learning
“We’re expecting three-year-olds to begin reading and writing, and that they know the entire alphabet at that age,” the CEO of ALTA, Paula Lucie-Smith, told the T&T Guardian.
“We’re pushing children too young into reading, and it sets them up to avoid it because it exposes them to failure.”
It is detrimental to child development because the high pressure they are exposed to sets up children for disappointment and failure from an early age.
“When that happens, you find children then become adept at adapting, at finding new ways of avoiding detection, and as they grow it gets worse because what we have is a system that is designed to support those who have the aptitude, so they do well in this environment,” Lucie-Smith said. “And it’s not that these children are not capable, it’s that they simply receive and process information in a different way,” Lucie-Smith added.
As those students move through primary school system, she says they become even more frustrated, because in the old system, “post-primary” existed as an attempt to develop underperforming students. Now that it no longer exists, these children enter the secondary school system without the basic foundation.
“So that whatever your target at SEA, the ground-work will have an impact leading up to that.”
Life skills consultant Sandra Blood takes issue with stakeholders who she says fail to take notice of underperforming students, and accuses them of turning a blind eye to development in order to fill quotas. She says there is little education in the way of informing educators and parents about what literacy means and without that information, policymakers continue to craft and administer curricula that frustrates children already performing poorly, who then lash out in various ways, eventually becoming labelled as “deviant.” Teachers and parents, she says, isolate and in some cases embarrass the child.
“Barring any physical or emotional trauma, can one actually say that children perform well from an early age until 17, and then suddenly they can’t read or write properly from the time they hit 18? What’s happening from 18 and above is symptomatic of what’s happening from 17 and below.”
Blood, Lucie-Smith, and Philip agree that while there are children who may either receive information differently, or posses a lower or average aptitude, the environmental factors that affect learning cannot be dismissed.
Lucie-Smith spoke of a young boy she interacted with who was enthusiastic about learning even though his performance could have improved. She told the T&T Guardian that one day, his participation and enthusiasm ceased.
“Eventually we found out that his friend died right in front of him, and there was no counselling, no follow-up to check on the emotional and mental impact on him,” Lucie-Smith said. “You could have the best education system in the world, if the child has had a traumatic event occur, or there is abuse in the home, either emotional or physical, or they live in a stressful environment where there is a high degree of crime and there is no support system to tackle that—all of these factors compete with the child’s ability to receive and process information.”
Abuse, poverty play a part
Chaguanas Chamber President Rickie Sookhai told the Guardian that the level of abuse is being hidden. The chamber recently launched a drive to understand its prevalence and promote avenues of action and support. “I’ve done an informal survey, asking teachers if they know of cases or know how to spot a child who is being abused, and frankly I had to surmise, based on the answers that none of our teachers are trained properly in this area,” Sookhai told the Guardian.
He said he’s been told by these teachers that if they do know, a guidance counsellor is alerted.
“And then you have one counsellor for 20 schools, multiply that now by however many schools you have.” Sookhai agrees with Lucie-Smith that without a proper support system in place, the fallout manifests itself in illiteracy as one among many social challenges faced by the country.
Co-ordinator for the Servol Life Centre’s East-Central zone David Jankey says the students the centre receives are often from low-income homes where abuse and a number of other challenges that ALTA, Dr Philip and Sookhai identified are present. Servol receives students who score below 25 per cent on the Secondary Entrance Assessment examination. “Poverty is a major contributor,” Jankey told the Guardian. “We’ve had the experience where those students we receive are the victims of bad parenting and a number of other issues they face at home are usually from poor families.” Jankey said the attention span of students now,is not what it used to be 15-20 years ago. “We take them in and try to bring them back up to a level for re-integration, but it’s not that these children are not capable of learning,” Jankey said. Lucie-Smith told the Guardian that teachers are not trained to recognise aptitude, and if they do, the support system provides little to no avenue to rectify the problem.