Monday, February 15, 2010

Uruguay: Combating the secret shame of Illiteracy

By Pablo Alfano - IPS

Making the Secret Shame of Illiteracy a Thing of the Past

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

"Excuse me, I forgot my glasses, could you tell me what that sign says?" This was one of the ruses commonly used by Juan Gómez, who was too embarrassed to admit that at the age of 77, he had never learned to read or write.

Forced to earn a living from a very young age working long, hard hours in the port of Montevideo, Juan never had time to spare for getting an education. Over the years, he developed a whole repertoire of ways to hide his illiteracy, going so far as to bandage his hands when he knew he would need to write his signature. But after a four-month literacy course targeted specifically at people like him, Juan’s guilty secret is a thing of the past.

Now a retired "old man," Juan was finally persuaded by his wife to embark on "the adventure of learning to read and write," as he described it in an interview with IPS. Today he speaks with pride about his victory over the shame and fear provoked by a lifetime of illiteracy.

Juan is one of 5,000 Uruguayan adults who learned to read and write between 2007 and 2009 thanks to a programme called "En el País de Varela: Yo, Sí Puedo" (In the Land of Varela: Yes, I Can), a local adaptation of a Cuban literacy programme that has been successfully implemented in different countries around the globe.

The Uruguayan programme’s name was chosen by the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) as a tribute to José Pedro Varela, considered the guiding force behind the reform of Uruguayan public education in the late 19th century, which included, among other measures, mandatory school enrolment for all boys and girls.

"I was really afraid of being turned away, and I felt so ashamed when I went with my wife to sign up. But the teacher put me at ease. I started from zero, because I couldn’t even write an ‘o’ by tracing a glass," said Juan.

"In four months I discovered a whole new world," he said, adding, "I feel really proud" – a statement he repeats numerous times throughout the interview, often with a catch in his voice.

"This was like a window being opened up to me," Juan declared to his teacher in January, when he and his classmates graduated from the four-month course. In addition to imparting basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, the course is aimed at broadening the general knowledge and cultural awareness of its participants.

"It’s worth the effort," "now I want to start going to [formal] school," "I want to continue studying because I’ve realised how important it is": these were some of the most frequent comments made by other programme participants interviewed by IPS, all of them with their own unique life stories.

After graduating from the course, they are all now able to read and write short passages, but they have gained something even more valuable: a significant boost to their self-esteem.

A problem of surprising proportions

Over the course of four months, course participants attend four classes a week, each one lasting an hour and a half. In addition to the traditional tools of a blackboard, text books, notebooks and pencils, learning is also facilitated by the audiovisual support of 65 "teleclasses".

Each class has a maximum of 15 students, in order to ensure personalised attention and speed up the learning process, Yamandú Ferraz, the director of the programme, told IPS. The results have been encouraging, with 81 percent of participants successfully passing the course.

The students are also provided with a small personal "library" funded with the support of a number of state-owned companies and banks and a local publishing house, which collaborated with the printing of this collection of books by Latin American authors.

MIDES, the ministry responsible for the programme, was created through a law passed less than a month after Uruguay’s first leftist government took office in March 2005, led by President Tabaré Vázquez of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition. The new ministry’s flagship initiative was the National Plan to Address the Social Emergency (PANES).

Literacy training was not initially included among the plan’s objectives. However, after a detailed study of the nearly 90,000 households that had signed up for financial assistance through PANES, the authorities discovered that a significant number of poor Uruguayans over 15 years of age were unable to read or write, or could only do so with extreme difficulty, commented Ferraz.

Official studies revealed that in 2006, 2.4 percent of adult Uruguayans still could not read or write – a surprising figure, given the fact that Uruguay had historically been highly advanced in this regard, thanks to the educational reforms spearheaded by Varela, and had the lowest rate of illiteracy in all of Latin America by the mid-20th century, a mere 10 percent. The goal now is to declare the country an illiteracy-free zone.

Learning with TV, radio, pencil and paper

When the MIDES authorities first set out to achieve this goal, they discovered that barely four or five schools throughout the entire country offered classes specifically for adults.

Ferraz and a team of teachers, along with Social Development Minister Marina Arismendi herself, who is an adult education specialist, began to seek out teaching methods that showed tangible results, but would not require a large financial investment.

Their search led them to the Yo, Sí Puedo (Yes I Can) programme developed by the Latin American and Caribbean Pedagogical Institute (IPLAC), which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Education of Cuba.

The programme has been used to teach basic literacy skills to more than two million adults in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela and even Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as a number of countries in Africa and Asia.

One of the most novel applications of the Cuban literacy training method took place in Haiti, where the programme was implemented through a French-language radio show. Hundreds of Haitians learned to read and write with nothing more than a conventional radio receiver, the course text books, a notebook and a pencil, explained Ferraz.

The results achieved through this radio-based literacy training experience in Haiti led the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to recognise the Cuban government with an Honourable Mention among the 2002 winners of the King Sejong Literacy Prize. (The prize pays tribute to the outstanding contribution made to literacy over 500 years ago by King Sejong of Korea.)

The following year, the Cuban government was awarded an Honourable Mention once again, this time for its international cooperation in literacy training. In addition, a UNESCO Chair in Education Sciences was established at IPLAC in 1994.

The implementation of this teaching methodology using television instead of radio has proven equally successful. In Uruguay, as in other parts of the world, it was first necessary to place the study materials in a local context, particularly the audiovisual component.

To this end, MIDES recruited actors from the Margarita Xirgú Municipal School of Dramatic Arts (EMAD) and the Uruguayan Actors Society (SUA) to participate in the filming of the 65 teleclasses used in the course.

At the same time, however, the Uruguayan experience differed from the approach adopted in other countries in that the classes themselves were taught by actual teachers, rather than facilitators.

Since the programme was initiated in 2007, nearly 300 teachers have participated through an agreement signed between MIDES and the National Public Education Administration (ANEP).

A never-ending mission

In this South American country of 3.3 million people, there are still 184,000 people over the age of 15 who have no higher than a third-grade primary school education, including 30,000 who have never attended school, according to the most recent figures from the National Statistics Institute (INE).

The latest national household survey conducted by INE revealed that 2.2 percent of Uruguayans over the age of 15 do not know how to read and write, 1.6 percent have never attended school, 0.8 percent have completed only the first year of primary school, 1.6 percent completed only the second year, and 3.8 percent only got as far as third grade. "This is the programme’s target population," said Ferraz.

Women account for 54 percent of this target group. The survey also found that people between the ages of 16 and 54 account for 30 percent of the illiterate population, while older adults aged 55 and over account for 70 percent.

Ferraz explained that there are three types of illiteracy. The first includes individuals who never learned to read or write; the second is known as illiteracy through disuse, which refers to people who have learned basic reading and writing skills but have lost them through lack of practice; and the third is functional illiteracy, found among individuals who are able to read and write but lack the proficiency to cope with the demands of daily life.

"Illiteracy is a major contributing factor to exclusion and a barrier to real social justice," Ferraz maintained. Learning to read and write at a functional level opens up a huge range of possibilities for people: the ability to read street signs and advertisements; to enjoy a book or subtitled movie; to read instructions for safer use of hazardous products and medications; to help children or grandchildren with their homework; and to gain access to better employment opportunities.

The director of the Uruguayan version of Yo, Sí Puedo emphasised that the programme "has not lowered the illiteracy rate in Uruguay, but has made a fundamental impact by beginning to remedy this situation and by raising the awareness of the public authorities." But obviously, he added, "a great deal still needs to be done."

It is estimated that there are 771 million illiterate people in the world today, of whom 34 million live in Latin America, where there are another 110 million people classified as functionally illiterate. All of them, as a result, suffer from some degree of social exclusion, low self-esteem, and limited intellectual and employment opportunities.

The eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by the world’s governments in 2000 include a commitment to ensure that "by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling."

The United Nations, and UNESCO in particular, have also pledged their commitment to halving the world’s illiteracy rates by 2015. According to national reports, however, most countries remain a significant distance from achieving this goal, and progress toward it has reached a clear standstill.

Note: The Yo, Sí Puedo literacy programme is being carried out in both urban and rural areas of Uruguay, and not only in schools.

The director of the programme, Yamandú Ferraz, noted that many of its graduates are inmates at the Santiago Vázquez Prison Complex (the country’s largest penitentiary), the Montevideo Women’s Prison, and penitentiaries in the eastern department (province) of Maldonado and the northern department of Rivera.

Literacy classes have also been offered to patients at the state-run Vilardebó Psychiatric Hospital in Montevideo, as well as in a number of branches of the Ministry of Defence located south of the Río Negro, an area that encompasses 13 of the 19 departments into which Uruguay is divided.

An internal study conducted by the Social Services Department of the Ministry of Defence revealed that around 150 soldiers in the Uruguayan Army experienced serious difficulties in reading and writing, which led to their enrolment in the programme.

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