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Tackling literacy in T&T

Published: 
Thursday, March 10, 2016

Part 1

A quick Google search of ‘literacy stats in Trinidad and Tobago’ will leave you pleasantly surprised, but also possibly confused about the need for an organisation like Alta. According to Unesco statistics, since 1990 Trinidad and Tobago has enjoyed a steady growth in our already superb literacy rate which stood at 96.9 per cent in 1990 and is recorded as 99 per cent as of 2015. 

On the other hand, the 1994 Alta and 1995 UWI National Literacy Surveys show that 22-23 per cent of our people aged 15 and over, are unable to cope with everyday reading and writing. That’s almost one in four Trinidadians and Tobagonians who were not literate. Although these surveys were done over a decade ago, it is highly unlikely that a survey today would reveal any positive change. 

Alta’s survey found that eight per cent of people over 15 years of age (which would have equated to 62,000 adults) could not read even three of these words: to, at, love, sun, bet. A further 15 per cent of could only read a little, adding another 118,000 adults. According to these two surveys, at best, our literacy rate stood at 78 per cent in 1995 with some 180,000 adults unable to cope with everyday basic reading and writing. 

Why is there such a large disparity in the statistics? The answer lies in the way literacy is measured. According to Unesco’s Institute for Statistics, most countries gain information about literacy rates from years of schooling, a national household survey or census. The typical question asked is, Can you read and write? Given the stigma associated with not being literate, many people do not answer honestly producing unreliable statistics. 

Further to this, the question can you read and write? does not specify to what level. So someone who can only write their name and address and identify some words, may answer yes but it would not be correct to say they are literate enough to function in our society, where they are faced with print at every turn—whether you are buying food or getting your driving licence. 

As for the years of schooling, being enrolled in primary and even secondary school does not equate to being able to read and write. A look at SEA results is all you need to negate this. If not, consider that almost all students at Alta’s literacy classes have attended primary school, and some have gone all the way through secondary school. There are a plethora of reasons ranging from dysfunctional homes to learning difficulties which have an impact on whether a child develops literacy. 

Given the inaccuracy of the statistics, Unesco’s Institute for Statistics has developed the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (Lamp) which measures literacy on a continuum. Lamp is meant to develop a global methodological standard for measuring literacy in a way that can be compared across countries at different stages of development and literacy contexts. This is much more effective as it ensures that statistics are much more accurate. 

Alta has tackled our low literacy rate by providing free reading and writing classes to adults (16+) since 1992. Registration takes place in September.

Join us next week as we look at the impact of low levels of literacy on T&T.

For more information about joining an Alta class or volunteering with Alta, call 624-2582. 

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