In the last week of January, I went to a week-long literacy workshop hosted by the Peace Corps. There seems to be a movement within the Peace Corps’ administration that is working to recognize the challenges of teaching in populations with low literacy rates. Since Peace Corps education programs usually focus on the secondary school level, this creates a challenge when a significant number of students at that level still can’t read fluently. I was so thankful that I was allowed to be a part of the workshop to learn and contribute my own experience in this area even though I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer!
I met some wonderful kindred spirits from all around West Africa at this workshop (all Peace Corps Volunteers and staff), and had a great time learning and sharing ideas. It’s exciting to me to find people that also recognize the significant need we have here. If you’re outside of this context, it’s easy to assume a certain level of skill in students in a given grade, or even in the population at large. Yet it’s easy to find high school (and college!) graduates who are completely illiterate.
and the most recent study lists the adult literacy rate at 47.6% (source). And, like the statistics I reference in my post on food security, that 47.6% is likely heavily biased by a higher literacy rate in the capital and obscures the darker reality in other counties (frustratingly, I was not able to find a literacy breakdown by county to confirm this). Correction 3/1/2016: According to the 2013 Liberia Demographic Survey, the literacy rate here is 48% for women 71% for men. And these numbers are heavily biased by a higher literacy rate in the capital and obscure the reality in other counties: In Bong, for example, the literacy rate is 20% for women, 53% for men.
It’s popular to think that people will be empowered to learn on their own if given the right resources, that simply providing textbooks or Khan Academy videos will let people use new information to create novel solutions. It’s true, in rare cases this can happen. But for the general population to take advantage of these resources, we first need basic building-block skills that allow us to interact with the information and integrate it into our understanding of how the world works… and literacy is at the core of that.
I appreciated that the workshop emphasized empowering students to interact with the educational text on their own, drawing inferences, making predictions, and relating it to personal experience. The workshop emphasized that, as educators, our responsibility is not to deliver content, but to facilitate a student’s process as they extract and process content from the text on their own. This way, students can grow to become independent learners and can take advantage of educational resources like textbooks or Khan Academy videos. To me, this is 100% the approach that is needed here. I hope it continues to spread!
The Peace Corps workshop also reinvigorated my drive to develop my own basic literacy program for Liberia. For the past month, I’ve been working with my oldest sister (age 15) in the evenings, adapting some of the exercises I learned as a clinician at Lindamood Bell Learning Processes (in CA) to better suit the needs I see in the Liberian context. We’re both enjoying it; she’s learning quickly, and I’ve been gaining insight into how basic literacy teaching can be improved here.
A few days ago, out of the blue, my mother thanked me for my work with my sister. My mother told me that she had overheard my sister reading some of her class work without me, and was impressed at her ability. Before I started working with my sister, my mother had assumed that she was just slow or incapable of learning.
I explained that similar to how some flowers need sun while others need shade, children have different learning needs. If you put them all in the same environment without enough individual attention, you’ll find that some excel and some struggle; if you plant a bunch of seeds in the same area, you’ll find that some grow and some don’t. If a seed isn’t growing, it’s not necessarily the seed’s fault – it might just need different conditions. My mother really liked this idea, and insisted that I “do the same thing” with my next oldest sister, who struggles with reading as well.
I’m excited to continue working with my family and developing my ideas and intuitions. I’d really like to see if I can help my older sister facilitate literacy exercises with my younger sister. I want to make sure that whatever curriculum and material I develop can work in a grassroots community and family context.
As I said in a previous post, I’m still really interested in completing larger studies to try to uncover a more complete picture of the literacy challenges we’re working with. It’s so important to make data-driven decisions in the interventions that we make. Without creating a feedback loop through research, we’re working with our eyes closed.
I’m convinced that someday a well-targeted grassroots literacy program could spread through the country and boost the literacy skills of an entire generation of Liberian children (and perhaps spill over into other parts of Africa as well!). What a dream it would be if I ever became a part of a movement like this!