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ALTA cited for literacy work in TT

By MELISSA DASSRATH Sunday, November 2 2008

Paula Lucie-Smith, the founder of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA), garnered international attention when American First Lady Laura Bush remarked about her work with literacy in Trinidad and Tobago at a recent White House Symposium on Advancing Global Literacy.

On a global scale, one in five adults cannot read or write. This fact led to the United Nations Literacy Decade which was launched on February 13, 2003. The theme “Literacy as Freedom” expresses the collective will of the international community to promote a literate environment for all in both developing and developed countries. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was officially declared to be the agency that would spearhead this effort.

In September, Lucie-Smith represented Trinidad and Tobago at the UNESCO Regional Preparatory Conference for CONFINTEA VI ( International Conference of Adult Education) which was held in Mexico.

She said, “There is a tremendous focus on literacy throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The governments seem to understand that this is a fundamental issue and that what is in place is not working as it should. So that a lot of energy and resources need to be channelled into getting those initiatives to work as they should. One of the major issues coming out of the conference was not access to education, but the lack of quality education being delivered. This is being considered as a major factor in the problem of literacy.”

At the UNESCO Conference, she also presented a paper entitled “Family Inter-generational Literacy”. The Executive Director of the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation, Benita Somerfield, who was the moderator at the seminar expressed the view that the ALTA programme was noteworthy.

She indicated that at the conference there was a great deal of recognition that the majority of adult education is coming from the non-formal sector that was essentially meeting the demands of society: “They recognised that these groups were directly responding to an educational need not being fulfilled by the formal sector. There was the sense that the formal sector was out of touch with the modern world and very locked in its ways, whereas the non-formal sector is very dynamic and flexible.”

However, there was also a focus on the issue of proper monitoring and a system of structured evaluation: “These groups in the non-formal sector are generally self-run and answerable to no one. So very often they may have good intentions but do not have the structure, approaches and strategies for teaching. There was the understanding that this is necessary to ensure that the delivery of an adult education programme is effective. That is where ALTA is different, in many respects. So in a lot of ways going to conference reaffirmed that we were on the right track and a lot of what we have been doing fits into what the current thinking is.”

Lucie-Smith explained how basic brochures dispensed at the conference made its way to the White House: “I passed out some ALTA fact sheets at the conference and also gave one to Benita Somerfield. So the head of the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation had the opportunity to review ALTA’s materials and methods of teaching. She was very impressed that we had a very structured progamme based on sound educational theory put into the correct context. But the first I knew of Mrs Bush’s reference was when I got an e-mail from the speech writer from the White House requesting permission to use our information.”

In her speech, Laura Bush stated that: “Literacy builds a foundation for personal and political freedom. It gives citizens the tools they need to read an election ballot or to read a bedtime story to their child.” The US First Lady then drew reference to an ALTA student from Chaguanas: “One mother of two, Sharon, describes her experience with literacy this way. She said, ‘There was no place for me at the heart of society.’ But Sharon found hope in the promise of education. At the age of 33, a friend introduced her to the Adult Literacy Tutors Association of Trinidad and Tobago. Sharon is now learning to read and write and says she has ‘a whole new life’.”

ALTA was founded in 1992. Lucie-Smith, who comes from a strong teaching background, explained that the feeling of dependency and the fear of the stigma of illiteracy is a double-edged sword for so many. “Many people rely on someone else to handle the written world for them. When that person is no longer there, that’s when they come to us.”

Simple, everyday tasks such as following a recipe, flipping through a newspaper, or passing a driving test are major obstacles for those who cannot read or write: “Since so much of the world is represented by words, symbols, colours and logos they feel lost. Everyone else understands what is around them only they have no idea what it is.”

Literacy, therefore, must equip and empower people to function in their daily lives: “Adults in a sense demand that what they are learning is relevant to them and that they are engaged. You must incorporate what the student wants to read, so when they complete a literacy class that they can go out there and jump into life. So you have to deliver a programme that meets their needs. What they learn must be functional for their lives, but we simplify for them.”

Lucie-Smith stated that ALTA’s curriculum is designed around widely-practiced international educational principles: “ Our programme is very much influenced by the Orton-Gillingham Method that was developed in the US. What we do is also linked to the work of Paolo Freire from Brazil. He is regarded as the icon of adult education. His most well-known phrase is: ‘Read the word to read the world’.”

ALTA classes are free and are offered in some 50 venues across the country. ALTA runs in sync with the standard academic year. However, the atmosphere is far more adaptive, interactive and conducive to learning than a traditional classroom because they realised that most of the adults who end up in ALTA went through the school system as children but did not benefit from it. Says Lucie-Smith, “A lot of the adults who come to ALTA are the ones that were essentially lost in the traditional education system, suffered from learning disabilities like dyslexia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, had vision, hearing or speech problems that were not picked up, or maybe had emotional trauma that interrupted their studies. For people who cannot read, school was a very negative experience. So we try to create a different environment that is nurturing and not competitive.” There is a Beginner’s Class for people who may or may not know the letters of the alphabet or the fine motor skills required to write with a pencil. Then there are Levels 1, 2 and 3. The highest level is aimed at further equipping persons who want to go on to formal schooling, for those who wish to pass CXC subjects or those who have a job and feel that they have hit a barrier because their literacy skills cannot support upward movement.

ALTA workbooks teach basic reading and writing skills with materials that are familiar to the student. Lessons feature subjects related to the Caroni swamp, Brian Lara’s cricket score, the chorus from Celine Dion’s song “My Heart will go on” and there is even an exercise called “roll-up the tassa”.

Lucie-Smith added that one of the things that the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation applauded ALTA for was its system for monitoring and evaluation of students as well as tutors: “We have an evaluation system for students that does not involve any formal written tests. We assess student performance with an end-of-level evaluation. The students are graded from one to five based on their ability to work independently or work with a tutor. It helps the teacher decide whether the student is ready for the next level of study.

“We also evaluate teachers. There are coordinators that visit classrooms regularly to check on progress. Plus all tutors are required to participate in refresher training courses if they wish to continue teaching with ALTA. So we have a performance profile on them.”

To paint a picture on the issue of literacy in Trinidad and Tobago, she referred to two major national surveys: “ALTA conducted a literacy survey in 1994 and the Institute of Social and Economic Research in UWI conducted one in 1995. Different target populations and similar sample size to determine ‘non-functional literacy’ by demonstration. What was interesting was similarity in the figures. ALTA concluded about 23 percent were at this beginner level and UWI showed that about 22 percent of the adult population were illiterate.”

Lucie-Smith noted that in this country a greater percentage of men are functionally illiterate. She also noted the dichotomy between rural and city areas in terms of the illiteracy rate versus the need to read: “We have this strange situation where, although there are more people who need to learn to read and write in the rural areas, the need to need (desire) to read and write in a small village community is much less. If you are in a city, however, words are all around you and people feel that they are missing out on something. So there is a greater need for it.”

The former secondary school teacher who has devoted her career to picking up the slack of the education system, wants to quell the worries of those who are hesitant about taking a literacy class: “If you are a person that already has challenges, it’s not going to get easier because the world is quickly becoming more print-based whether on paper or computer screens. Reading makes you independent in a written world and it removes those fears that someone will discover that you are not able to read.”

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