Monday, 8 September 2014

Literacy and Human Development

“Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the
twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.” – President Bill
Clinton
Literacy is a human right and not a privilege. It is imperative that as humans’ beings we are afforded the opportunity to read and write. Literacy provides an avenue for both social and human development and acts as a tool for personal empowerment. In recognition of this fact each year the United Nations (UN) set aside September 8 to celebrate International Literacy Day. The theme for the 2014 literacy day is “Literacy and Sustainable Development”.
Literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society. Literacy provides us with the ability to achieve our personal goals, as well as, develop our knowledge and skills set. Literacy is critical to the economic and social development of a society more so in a globalized world. A society with high literacy levels is a progressive society. Interestingly, as the society evolves so too has the definition of literacy. Literacy over the years has expanded to include among new literacies, such as literacy in media, financial literacy, and literacy in information and communication technologies. We now view literacy as both task and skills based. The task-based definition of literacy highlights the everyday literacy tasks an adult can and cannot perform, while on the other hand the skills based components of literacy focuses on the knowledge and skills an adult must possess in order to perform word-recognition skills as well as skills necessary to draw inferences. 
A student for example, may have challenges reading a text; however, that same student may have mastered literacy in other areas for example in Information Technology.
Disturbingly, more than 774 million of the world’s adults are unable to read. Of this number nearly two-thirds are women. It is estimated that worldwide 123 million children lack the skills to be literate.
In an effort to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of 100 per cent literacy by 2015, Jamaica has been working feverishly with agencies such as Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL) to achieve this. Against this background the Alternative Secondary Transitional Education Programme (ASTEP) was designed to improve the literacy rate among Jamaican students. This two year intervention programme is aimed at rescuing those students who had failed to master the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT). It is rather interesting to note that the ASTEP programme has become a male initiative, since most of the students enrolled are primarily boys.  Upon closer examination of Jamaica’s literacy rate using sex disaggregated data we clearly see that males have a lower rate at 84.1 per cent when compared to females at 91 per cent. Jamaica is ranked at 118, with a literacy rate of 86.4% listed on the 2011 Human Development Report published by the United Nations. Our Caribbean neighbours of Cuba and Barbados are ranked among the top five countries. Cuba is ranked at number 2 with a literacy rate of 99.8 per cent while Barbados is fifth with a literacy rate of 99.7 per cent.
While much effort and resources have been invested by successive governments over the years to improve the levels of literacy in the society a number debilitating factors are ever present and indeed threatening to erode and or slow the gains we have made over the years to eradicate illiteracy.
The main barrier to Jamaica achieving a 100 per cent literacy level is our inability to develop and promote a reading culture. The Jamaican society is very much an oral society a feature of our African heritage. This results in a tendency for the Jamaican society to shy away from documentation. The reading process begins long before the child enters the formal education system. In fact emergent literacy begins in the womb at the point of conception. However, not many expectant mothers take the time to read to their unborn child. Clearly for some women it’s a situation of ignorance.  Interestingly there is also a gender dynamics at play in a culture of non readers. Our men in generally do not like to read. Consequently our fathers do not model reading as a positive skill for their sons. Additionally, boys who show an aptitude for Literature (reading) are oftentimes ridiculed and excluded from the hegemonic notion of masculinity. The old and archaic perception of masculinity still shapes how we view what a boy should be doing or not doing. As a result boys in particular are usually not encouraged to read. This wayward thinking is evident at the secondary level as more girls gain a passing grade in English Language and Literature in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) than do boys. 
Secondly, there is a shortage of reading specialists at both the primary and secondary levels of the education system. The policy makers of the education system need to ensure that more males are employed as reading specialists. This will be an added benefit especially for our boys who will be then motivated and inspired by seeing men read.   
Another barrier to full literacy is the size of our classroom. There is no way one teacher of literacy can adequately address the reading needs of a class of 35 students or more. As a result students who are in need of this special help in our schools oftentimes go without the required help given our propensity to have overcrowded classrooms.  Added to this some teachers are given literacy to teach when in fact they are not reading specialists and therefore they do not have the required skills to assist their pupils adequately to the extent to which they need to be.
A significant numbers of our students have problems in the area of phonemic awareness. Too many students are unable to recognize and manipulate sounds in words.  For many students they lack the ability and skills necessary to segment words using syllabication.
The truth is many of our students who enter high school are not ready to access and manipulate the curriculum at that level; too many of our students are reading at the pre primer level.
A fourth barrier to achieving one hundred per cent literacy is that of Creole Interference in the teaching and learning process. For many students their language of choice is Jamaican English and while nothing is wrong per see with that far too many Jamaican students view Standard English as confined only to the classroom experience. This fact makes it more challenging for those students to use Standard English in a classroom setting whether in the written form or orally.
Having said that all is not lost especially since we now know that literacy is the ability to communicate meaning from and by the use of a variety of socially contextual methods. Our main strategy to improve Jamaica’s level of literacy is that of using more of the available technology.  The Ministry of Education as well as, all agencies and stakeholders involved in literacy and education must incorporate a more balanced and coordinated literacy programme to integrate a variety of teaching approaches and strategies. The available technology especially the cellular phones which all our students have access to can and should be used to promote an environment where students interface and engage in meaningful and creative learning experiences.  Additionally more private sector support is clearly needed in the area of education if it is that Jamaica is going to realize the UN, s Millennium Development Goal of 100 percent literacy for 2015. Too many of our schools especially non-traditional schools are without sufficient books and equipment for their reading clubs. It is very important that we remember that literacy is at the foundation of basic education for all and is essential for eradicating poverty, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development.
The moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold into a library, we have changed their lives forever, and for the better.-President Barack Obama

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
waykam@yahoo.com