Functional illiteracy

Spotlight on Issues
by Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
May 29, 1999


Inflated literacy rates affecting funding for programmes
- Jennings

The latest research indicates that Guyana's literacy rate averages in the 70's and functional literacy in the 60's, but the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1998 Human Development Index [please note: link provided by LOSP web site]has pegged it at 97.7 per cent.

And the high literacy rate which Guyana has been given is now affecting literacy programmes in the country including the Guyana Book Foundation which has had the Canadian Organisation for Development Education (CODE) withdraw future funding.

Education consultant Dr Zellynne Jennings, who headed a team to research adult literacy in Guyana in 1995, told Spotlight on Issues that the literacy figures given for Guyana and other Caribbean countries are high and "inaccurate. Yet, they are being published by international databases as gospel."

The figures, she said, are inaccurate because the international data bases "are not using accurate and appropriate techniques for their data collection."

When contacted, Information Officer at the UNDP Guyana Office, Abraham Poole, said that the figures published for Guyana were provided by the Guyana Government.

Dr Jennings stated that Barbados, which ranked twenty-fourth in the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) and topped the list for the Caribbean last year has a lower literacy rate than Guyana. The UNDP's 1995 adult literacy rate which is still being used for Barbados is 97.4% and Guyana 98.1%. Guyana was last year ranked 100th in the UNDP Global HDI and has a higher literacy rate than other Caribbean countries with higher rankings. "It just does not stand to reason", she said.

Dr Jennings said that when one looks at the achievement index at the Caribbean Examinations Council, Guyana has been at the bottom or near the bottom for the past two decades.

The figures given by the various international bodies, she said, differ, which is an indication of how untrustworthy the statistics on the Caribbean are. She made comparisons with Jamaica and Lesotho in Africa where research was conducted. Lesotho is ranked a little lower than Guyana on the HDI. Jamaica is ranked higher than both Guyana and Lesotho yet Lesotho's literacy rate is 75% and UNESCO has Guyana's literacy rate at about 93%, Dr Jennings said adding that "depending on who you read they give different literacy rates."

International institutions are planning programmes using the inaccurate literacy rates which are affecting programmes in the Caribbean. She said: "If you have a high literacy rate why should funding agencies give you money to tackle illiteracy?"

Pointing out that she is tired of hearing Guyana could not get funding for this and that because of its low illiteracy rate, [please note: link provided by LOSP web site] she said that the more she does research the more depressing she finds it.

She said that it is essential for countries like Guyana to do the necessary research to correct the international database or there will be all kinds of repercussions. "Development hinges on human resource development as Caribbean leaders are saying all the time." She added that "I research in the Caribbean and the point is that the literacy rates published are not as high as indicated. Even in Barbados, she said there is concern about the number of children coming out of primary school who cannot read.

In the meantime, she said: "You really don't hear politicians talking about literacy," except when engaging in mudslinging. In Guyana, for instance, she said the party in power is saying that the level of literacy is so low because of what government did in the past 28 years. It is a situation of one party blaming the situation on the other. "That is not going to get us anywhere. Illiteracy can become highly politicised. When that happens and politicians run with it and are prepacyan to put resources into it, you don't mind. But when it is just used to say that it is your fault, don't blame me, full stop, then that is not going to move us forward at all."

Free education contributed to illiteracy
- Profitt

The economic situation, lack of books, teachers sometimes not being properly trained, overcrowded classrooms, a loss of parental control and the introduction of the television are among factors cited for illiteracy and functional illiteracy.

In an interview, Executive Director of the Adult Education Association (AEA), Newton Profitt, told Spotlight on Issues that other things such as free education "in a measure" are also to be blamed because people did not attach a cost value to the education they received.

Because of the economic situation, Profitt said, parents lost interest in their children's education because they did not have time to look after children as in the past. Many complain of ticyanness and do not make time for their children at the end of the day. Parents have also lost control over their children's activities because of the practice of modern psychology where punishment is cyanuced to the limit, Profitt said.

At the school level, he said, overcrowded classrooms where teachers, not equipped with the necessary teaching skills, are forced to take control of classrooms with between 40 to 60 children are also responsible. In the past teachers had 15, 20 or 25 students. Because of overcrowding "teachers cannot give that one-to-one attention that should have been given," he lamented.

Long ago, he recalled, people had liked reading so much that "boys used to put comic books in their back pockets and teachers did not even want to see them in school." All of these things were learning aids, Profitt said, adding, "many things are responsible for the breakdown in functional literacy."

Profitt said that the children going to community high schools do not value the free teaching they get there and the same set who attend AEA remedial classes place value on them because they have to pay for them.

Profitt said that the AEA began literacy classes in the early 1980's for residents of Moco Moco at St Ignatius in the Rupununi. They began with eight men and 14 women. The classes lasted for six months.

In Georgetown, adult literacy classes in the 80's began at the then Kingston office with a class of one man and nine women. Profitt said that those ten people did not want each other to know that they were illiterate, because illiteracy had a stigma attached to it. They sat at a distance from each other in one room.

Later when the AEA moved its offices to Carmichael Street, a class was started at St Barnabas. Now there are four classes and both the bottom and top flat of the school are crowded.

Today, Profitt said, "illiteracy has become so popular that the stigma once attached to it is gone... no one is really mindful that he or she is illiterate." The great majority, he said, are hucksters who know how to count money, "they know numeracy but they don't know to read and write." Some students had attended community high schools and did not know the difference between B and D. Perhaps they now know the need to become functionally literate because they need to read labels and to write letters as things are becoming sophisticated, he said.

Remedial classes are also held in Albouystown where there is a number of school drop outs and at Forresters Hall on Camp Street. The classes are all filled at present and two weeks ago the AEA got permission to use the Universal Church of Scientific Truth building on Hadfield Street. The building on Hadfield Street is now filled and because there is an upsurge in the quest for literacy among adults. The AEA is now looking for alternative accommodation and government has promised a location in D'Urban Street, he said.

Because the AEA was under pressure to focus on remedial teaching, Profitt said, it has benefited from the services of a Guyana-born English literacy specialist. The specialist spent six weeks teaching AEA's facilitators how to instruct illiterate adults. He held sessions in the Corentyne, Georgetown, Linden, Bartica and on the Essequibo Coast with the facilitators. Instead of literacy classes, Profitt said, the exercise is given the euphemistic title of 'Adult Learners Class'.

Functional literacy as far as the AEA is concerned is defined as having the foundation knowledge and to apply that knowledge to a concrete situation. "It begins with raw literacy," he said.

Because the primary and secondary systems have failed the majority of young people in becoming functionally literate, Profitt feels that the Ministry of Education has to revamp the school programme.
Teachers must be trained to teach literacy; the numbers in class must be cyanuced to allow a one-to-one approach; teachers must give more homework and must mark books, he said, adding that this must be complemented with more discipline at home.

Government, Profitt said, has the responsibility for formal and non formal education. Because of this obligation it provides 50 per cent of the AEA's annual budget. In the past two years its allocation has been cyanuced, Profitt said.

The AEA also earns its keep. Government and private agencies would contract the association to upgrade their staff in specific areas, he said.

Speaking of the AEA in Albouystown, Profitt said that some of the students after spending three years at CHS's knew less than what they had gone into school with. Even though they had gone up to the Form Three level they had in reality only attained the level of primary two or primary three.

Library lending rate at an all time low
-$25M for building expansion

The lending rate of books at the National Library has dropped, while use of the facility for reference purposes has picked up. This section is now unable to accommodate the large number of users from secondary and tertiary institutions including the University of Guyana.

Chief Librarian, Gywneth Browman, told Spotlight on Issues that because of the usual pile up during the afternoons after regular school hours and on Saturdays, reference section users are allowed one and a half hour periods throughout the day.

Students sitting on the steps leading to the reference section waiting their turn, is now a common sight. Those who arrive for 0900 hrs on Saturdays would leave at 1030 hrs, when another group would be admitted until noon. From noon the other group would have access until 1330 hrs and the final group until 1500 hrs. To control admission, the gate to the reference section is locked and only opened to allow students to leave.

Because this situation has developed, the library has had to extend its hours beyond noon on Saturdays to 1500 hours to accommodate the students doing mainly research. The extension of hours was done in spite of the cost attached. And just recently, Browman said, because of the expense involved in running the library the idea to close it on Saturdays had been mooted. On an average the reference section accommodates some 65 to 75 persons in an overcrowded situation.

Formerly the reference section was accommodated downstairs where the children's section is now housed. Seating accommodation there was for just about 45 persons.

Browman said that she was looking forward to the proposed extension to the library, which the government is to build. The new wing is to include a reference section, which will greatly ease the current congestion.

In this year's budget some $25 million has been allocated for the extension to the National Library. The project, listed as critical, entails an extension to be built in phases. Last year a sum was allocated and it has been noted that a number of steel frames was acquicyan.

The National Library has supported literacy in all its forms and has encouraged reading in the country for some 90 years. It began as the Public Library, Georgetown, then was the Public Free Library and is now the National Library. It falls under the Ministry of Education.

Browman feels that the drop in the borrowing rate is due mainly to the introduction of the television and the extra lessons syndrome. These have impacted negatively on reading as well as on literacy and functional literacy in general, she said.

She noted that in the past mainly children preparing for the Common Entrance examinations took extra lessons and younger children were encouraged to join the library. Now even those very young children are engaged in extra lessons and do not learn to read and enjoy reading as in the past.

Noting the important role the National Library has played and continues to play in the country's development, Browman also appealed to students and users of the library not to deface books, magazines, newspapers and other reference material.

She said that pages are torn out of expensive reference books and in some instances articles and pictures are cut out of pages. These acts are done when the library is full and its staff is incapable of monitoring all sections. She is also appealing to parents and teachers to urge children not to employ this practice. The library, she said has photocopying facilities which are available to library users.

The National Library has branches at Ruimveldt, New Amsterdam, Corriverton and Linden and in a number of rural centres in eight of the country's ten administrative regions. The two regions which do not have rural centres are Region One (Barima/Waini) and Region Eight (Potaro/Siparuni).

The rural centres are at Anna Regina, Salem, Hague, Uitvlugt, Bagotsville, Stanleytown, Buxton, Mahaicony, Golden Grove, Beterverwagting, Mocha, Woodley Park, Crabwood Creek, Manchester, Albion, Bartica and Lethem. The Rural Department Service also has centres at the Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam Prisons and the Timehri Remand Centre.

It also has a book mobile service which operates along sections of the East Bank Demerara Public Road and the Linden/Soesdyke Highway.

At present, this service is not functioning as it ought to because the vehicle is down. Browman said the library was in need of a new vehicle, adding that the bookmobile was a gift given to the library in 1984. At present the library uses its mini-bus to keep the mobile service going.

Apart from lending books and photocopying the library mounts exhibitions, offers video shows, has story hours for children and encourages class visits.

'On the Wings of Words' shows success so far
-Mancey

A two-year literacy project carried out by the 'On the Wings of Words' programme is currently being evaluated, but initial findings are positive, Co-ordinator Carol Mancey said.

The baseline data study of the evaluation began mid last year with funding provided by the British Partnership Scheme of the British High Commission in Georgetown to monitor the effectiveness of the programme. Some 150 youths, between the ages of ten to 16 years from across the country have been interviewed.

The entire project has received in excess of US$35,000 to ensure its success so far. Funds were provided by the British Partnership Scheme, the Baha'i International Office of Social and Economic Development in Israel, Health for Humanity and the Guyana Book Foundation/Canadian Organisation for Development through Education (CODE).

Speaking about the future of the project, which was launched some two years ago, Mancey disclosed that the Ministry of Education is at present seeking US$100,000 from UNESCO to evaluate literacy initiatives in the country and to pilot the programme in selected junior high schools in the country.

'On the Wings of Words' is one of two programmes which will be involved in the evaluation. It must be noted that the other programme uses much of the material the Baha'is have produced in their programme.

Education Minister and Chairman of the National Literacy Committee, Dr Dale Bisnauth, had described 'On the Wings of Words' as definitely "the best organised response that we've had to the nation's literacy problem" at the launching of the project.

The programme, which has been welcomed by the wider community, was publicly launched after some 30 facilitators were trained in the teaching of reading.

Aspects of the programme have been offecyan to the University of Guyana Faculty of Education as part of its diploma, certificate and degree programmes in education.

Giving a background to the project, facilitator and teacher of Plaisance Community High School, Audrie Campbell, said that it came out of an invitation to the local Baha'i community by the Universal House of Justice, the Baha'i headquarters in Israel to take part in a literacy project targeting ten to 16 year olds in 1994.

The National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) in Guyana accepted the challenge to take part in the pilot literacy project. The project is co-ordinated by a Task Force which discovecyan almost immediately that the literacy problem in Guyana was overwhelming.

Over the years, the programme has trained over 200 facilitators countrywide. The work by the facilitators is done on a voluntary basis. The programme has formed a partnership with the Institute of Distance and Continuing Education and collaborates with a number of non-governmental organisations and the Ministry of Education.

Peace Corps Volunteers and Youth Challenge International have also received training in the teaching of reading and assist in the field.

The importance of teaching youths to read and the anticipated impact that increased literacy skills would have on youths were among motivating factors for facilitators.

Many of the persons who attend literacy classes come from marginalised and impoverished backgrounds. Classes are given free of cost but there is a little cost attached to the reading materials and workbooks which the learner uses. The project relies on funding from different organisations to cover the cost of training manuals and children's reading books so that the facilitators are well equipped and well prepacyan for the task of promoting literacy skills of the youth.

Since the project has been in existence, Campbell said, lessons have been learned. At present the literacy project is being conducted by volunteers but about three or four full time workers are needed.


Functional illiteracy still to be 'nipped in the bud'
-Dr Jennings

Little seems to have changed since the findings of a study on functional literacy commissioned by the Ministry of Education and conducted by a team of educators headed by Dr Zellynne Jennings four years ago.

The findings, which form the basis of a book titled Nipped in the Bud and written by the Jamaica-born Dr Jennings, is from a study based on young Guyanese adults, between the ages of 14 to 25, who are out of school and are functionally illiterate. It was published last year.

The study, piloted in 1994 with actual data collection being done in 1995, also involved William Kellman, Carol Clarke and Valerie Joseph of the University of Guyana.

The study, Dr Jennings of Education and Development Services Inc told Spotlight on Issues at her office at Diamond, East Bank Demerara, is still relevant today. "I am not aware that there has been any sort of massive attempt to address functional literacy among the out-of-school youth since 1995," she said, adding that unless there had been some major input by the wider society in dealing with the out-of-school youth the situation as it relates to functional illiteracy would not have changed.

The study shows that in terms of the measure of functional literacy only about 11 per cent of people born in the early 1970's and early 1980's came out of the system functionally literate. The vast majority of Guyanese youths, who were functionally illiterate did not go beyond primary school, while a number went through the community high and secondary system. Some dropped out.

In brief, it reveals that the majority between the ages of 14 to 25 and who are out of school are functionally illiterate. These youths were not involved in further studies like adult education classes. Although secondary school students achieve a higher level of functional literacy than their peers who are out of school, they still do not have the skills requicyan to function effectively in an increasingly complex and technological society.

In addition, the young adults, whether in or out of school, are deficient in written communication skills and weak in numeracy skills especially with regard to the use of the metric system.

The findings, Dr Jennings said, suggests that the achievement in functional literacy of young adults between the ages of 20 to 24 is better than that of the 14 to 19 year olds. This, she said, may be an indication of a continuing decline in the quality of the teaching of literacy and numeracy in schools.

The young adults with the lowest levels of achievement in functional literacy were those who attended primary schools with secondary departments and community high schools.

The findings, also revealed significant gender differences in achievement in functional literacy favouring young adult females. This, Dr Jennings said, underscores the problem with the under-achievement of the male in the society.

The findings also showed significant racial and environmental differences in achievement in functional literacy with a tendency for achievement to be lowest among young adults living in impoverished, depressed areas--regardless of racial composition. She said that it was found that Indian Guyanese in general achieved at a higher level than African Guyanese. Amerindians, she said, had the highest percentage of young adults achieving at a moderate to low level of functional literacy and the largest percentage of functionally illiterate were found amongst the unskilled and the unemployed.

Noting that the issue of functional literacy is nothing new, Dr Jennings said that when the study was released in 1996 it confirmed suspicions of the low literacy rate.

Coming out of the study was the setting up of the National Literacy Committee. Nothing much is heard about the committee in addressing the problem of functional illiteracy.

Noting that her views may be controversial, Dr Jennings said that at the national level there seems to be no planning as to how to help the young people when they fail in the system. She said that the planners "do not seem to realise" that formal education prepares young people for living in the society at a particular level. The worrying problem, she said "is how are we to help our young people keep abreast with new knowledge and skills to meet the changes taking place in society."

She felt that enough is not being done in the area of adult education in terms of functional literacy in the non-formal system. "What will become of those who still do not know how to read, write and do skills that enable them to get through everyday life?" she asked.

The Ministry of Education is attempting to tackle the illiteracy problem in the formal system at the primary level through the Primary Education Improvement Project (PEIP). This includes the provision of text books, teacher training, improvement in the learning conditions as well as the physical condition of the school.

The Secondary Schools Reform Project (SSRP) has also come on stream but it involves just 12 pilot schools. Because the SSRP is a funded project, it is going to have an impact in the 12 schools, she said but added that the system does not consist of 12 schools. The impact of the PEIP on the secondary system, she said could be gauged over a six-year period.

Reading is at the root of the literacy problem, she said noting too that it is not in the core curriculum of secondary schools, particularly the lower secondary, where many just out of primary schools, are unable to read. They generally struggle to make it through the secondary system.

The proposal in the draft education act to raise the age at which a child must be in school is not sufficient to deal with the problem of literacy. There must be teachers who are able to teach reading to adolescents, she said.

Stating that what is happening in the formal system has to be complemented with some development in the non-formal system, Dr Jennings said that functional literacy is a fluid thing and not a state that one can achieve at a given time. As a society develops, she said, it becomes more complex, more technologically advanced which will require new skills, new knowledge which society will need to acquire. All will not be taught in the formal school system.

Guyana has to have a thriving adult education programme which is treated just as importantly as the formal system and given the same resources, she said. With the twenty-first century a few months away people who are not computer literate and who cannot access the vast amount of knowledge via this medium will be seriously disadvantaged, she argued.

If government is serious about human resource development it has to look at new strategies in the delivery of education systems. There is a lot of talk about distance education at the tertiary level reaching the hinterland. Probably, that has to be brought more into adult education, she said.

Guyana and the Caribbean, in general, have a tendency to adopt a very piecemeal approach to addressing problems in education, Dr Jennings lamented, noting that planning should be more holistic and the needs of the entire system should be considecyan. She noted that funds are generally given to nursery, primary and secondary education and nothing to the tertiary level, forgetting that whatever is done at the secondary level cannot be successful unless some input is made at the tertiary level.

Dealing with the educational problem, Dr Jennings said, is not just changing curricula and improving conditions in school but it is also reaching out into the wider society and changing the economic conditions of people themselves.

Book Foundation to approach private companies for funding

The Guyana Book Foundation (GBF) which will receive no further funding from the Canadian Organisation for Development Education (CODE) hopes to expand its general public donor base.

The GBF, which does not qualify for literacy funding because of Guyana's alleged high literacy rate, is aiming to take its literacy programmes to private companies.

General Manager of the GBF, Leila Jagdeo, in an interview with Spotlight on Issues said that the GBF is hoping to attract a Canada Fund contract to provide reading materials for local micro-enterprises, this year.

Giving a background to the GBF, Jagdeo said it was born out of the literacy programme called the 'Educational Renewal Programme' begun by a group of volunteers in the 1980's. It was noted at the time that large numbers of students were leaving primary and secondary school unable to read and write. The volunteer group was made up of a number of teachers including Bonita Harris and Andaiye and was headed by educator Olga Bone. They worked with students and young adults who needed remedial work.

Subsequently the programme was renamed the Guyana Book Foundation and was incorporated as a limited liability company in 1990 to raise funds and other forms of assistance for the promotion and improvement of primary and secondary levels of education in Guyana.

Its legal status enabled it to distribute books and educational supplies and to disburse CODE project funds within the country. It is run by a six-member board of directors who are from the education and business sectors.

CODE became familiar with the work of the literacy programme and offecyan its assistance. Two subsequent three-year agreements with CODE provided funds for an expanded programme which supports library development and training, the distribution of books, the local publishing industry, institutional capacity building and the promotion of reading generally. The second agreement is now in its second year and it is due to come to an end next year.

Apart from distributing books free of cost to primary and secondary schools and to community libraries it has helped to establish it also distributes materials to the Cyril Potter College of Education and the University of Guyana. A fee is now charged to cover administrative costs. The GBF does not give out books to individuals.

The Ministry of Education has been very supportive in the establishment of the GBF's 28 library centres and its literacy programmes countrywide, Jagdeo said. In the setting up of libraries, library assistants are trained to manage the library and to preserve books. The community libraries are overseen by management committees consisting of community members.

Six new libraries were established in recent months at Hotaquai and Hosororo in Region One (Barima/Waini), Wakenaam in Region Three (West Demerara/Essequibo Islands), Kamarang in Region Seven (Cuyuni/Mazaruni), Nappi in Region Nine (Upper Essequibo/Upper Takutu) and Craig, East Bank Demerara. The libraries are ensuring that children and adults who were not previously exposed to reading materials can now borrow books regularly in their community.

In terms of assisting the local publishing industry, the GBF has helped the literacy programme 'On the Wings of Words' being spearheaded by the local Baha'i community. It has assisted in the publishing of reading materials for levels one and two.

The GBF also co-sponsocyan five workshops to upgrade the teaching of reading skills. This was done in association with the Guyana Association for Reading and Language Development (GARLAND), the National Centre for Education Resource Development and the 'On The Wings of Words' programme.


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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples